The Beach Boys are one of the most important bands of the sixties and beyond, with thirty official albums released and a sixty years long career. With a troubled story, many missed opportunity and a slow and long artistic decline, their discography is full of surprises, both good and bad. From the surf rock beginning to the psychedelia of the late 60's, from the soul-rock of the early 70's to pure self-parody in recent years, let's try to rank all of their official studio releases.
Disclaimer: I'll start from the worst releases, and they are not good at all, so bear with me 'cause things will get much better as we go on. On the other hand, it may be interesting to re-discover some of these albums too, maybe for some kind of "so bad it's good" scenario, who knows!
30 - Stars And Stripes Vol.1 (1996)
Hardly a Beach Boys' album, this is basically a compilation of famous songs by the band covered by a number of country singers. The band is present doing harmonies and produced the record, other than that there's not much to report here, just for completists.
29 - Summer In Paradise (1992)
Mike Love's ultimate ego trip. After the success of Kokomo (a song in which he actually had very little hand in writing) the band tried to do an entire album in that vein, with everything bad about early 90's production thrown in. There is an "updated" version of their first single, Surfin', which is just bad, and what to say about the new version of Forever by John Stamos? An insult to the poor Dennis instead of a tribute. This is just bad. Interestingly, this seems to be the (or one of the) first album(s) entirely recorded on a software that will become ProTools.
28 - Still Cruisin' (1989)
A little bit better than Summer In Paradise, with a little contribution from Brian Wilson with the weird In My Car and the underrated Somewhere Near Japan. There's, of course, the dreaded Kokomo, and second half has some covers and songs with other artists (such as Wipe Out with the Fat Boys), so it's mostly forgettable. If only the whole album was like Somewhere Near Japan.... As it is, there's not much to save.
27 - Keepin' The Summer Alive (1980)
A big jump here, as this is not really a bad album. The last one to feature Dennis Wilson, but also not featuring any of his songs. What is in here is at least acceptable, but mostly far from memorable. The title track is a nice rock tune, Oh Darlin' and Goin' On are good songs, but the peak of the album is the closing Endless Harmony, kind of a self-tribute to the band written by Bruce Johnston; a wonderful and terribly underrated song.
26 - The Beach Boys (1985)
The first album after Dennis Wilson's passing is a full dive into the 80s. There's obviously a lot of self-parody, but a song like Getcha Back is probably the best thing the band released in that period: a perfect pop single that sounds like an updated version of their classic sound. Actually, the whole album sounds like a serious attempt at updating their sound and trying to stay relevant in the new decade, and most of the songs are fairly strong (if we count out the embarassing California Calling and Passing Friend). A nice, upbeat album that won't hurt your ears too much. Let's say that this is on par with Keepin' The Summer Alive.
25 - Surfin' Safari (1962)
A huge jump in time and quality, we now go back to their debut album from 1962. This is immediately immensely more interesting and enjoyable than anythig we've seen up until now, but obviously cannot be put against the albums that followed it. There's the title truck, Surfin', 409 and bunch of other covers and new songs, all completely dipped in the purest surf rock sound. A fun (and very short) album.
24 - L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
Back in their late career, this is a weird one. Not as bad as what is going to be next, as it has some quite good songs, but some things just drag it down. Good Timin' (actually recorded in 1974) is wonderful, as are the Dennis Wilson's songs that the band snatched from his unreleased Bambu (Love Surrounds Me and Baby Blue, two highlights), Lady Lynda is fun, as is Shortenin' Bread (the song that Brian Wilson was obsessed with for most of that decade). What drags the album down is the 10 minute disco remix of Here Comes The Night, originally from Wild Honey. Curt Boettcher produced it, and it's far from his best work: it just goes on and never ends! The album was destroyed by critics at the time, and it's not a masterpiece of course, but it can be quite enjoyable.
23 - 15 Big Ones (1976)
The "Brian Wilson is back" album. After a very interesting phase in which the band tried to stay relevant in the 70's with very little input from Brian (as we will see down this list), the release of Endless Summer (a sort of greatest hits album), reawakens the interest for the "classic" Beach Boys. So the band brought Brian back in the band (altough he was in no condition to be there) and released this weird album. Half new songs, half covers, with Brian and Dennis' voices "nicely coloured" by cocaine and big sounding arrangements, it could actually be enjoyable in a strange way. The cover of Rock And Roll Music was a hit, and In The Still Of The Night (another cover) is probably the brightest moment, other than that, it's a weird record.
22 - The Beach Boys Party! (1965)
A fun album that is undeniably a "filler", released while Brian was working on Pet Sounds. The idea was to simulate a party, in which the band and friends improvise some acoustic covers, such as the unexpected hit Barbara Ann. There are Beatles songs, Dylan songs, and on the whole is an entertaining listen, but not an essential one.
21 - MIU Album (1978)
After the return of Brian in the band, a couple of albums released, another couple of albums that were not released (Adult/Child and Merry Christmas from The Beach Boys), the band is back with an album that I feel is somewhat underrated. Granted, we are not talking about the new Pet Sounds here, but the newly clean voice of Brian Wilson is itself a good reason to give this album a listen. Altough this is mostly a Love-Jardine album with Brian helping and Carl and Dennis present only on a couple of tracks, the result is at least entertaining. She's Got Rhythm and Match Point Of Our Love shows Brian in his best voice since the early 70s, My Diane is an underrated gem sung by Dennis, and Wind Of Change is an intense closing. Adult/Child would have been MUCH better, but still, this isn't as bad as some people say.
20 - Surfin' USA (1963)
One of the quintessential surf rock albums, and the second one of their discography. Pretty much all we've heard on the first one is more on focus here, from the immortal title track to the classic Shut Down, from Farmer's Daughter and the beautiful Lonely Sea. The rest of it is an enjoyable and fun collection of new songs and covers, and while not their best album, is certainly a recommended listen.
19 - Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
At the time it was either surf or cars, and this album is all dedicated to cars, as the title (and title track) suggests. A good part of songs, even the title track, come from previous albums, along with a few new ones. Be True To Your School and Spirit Of America are new highlights, and no real filler this time (if we don't count songs that are on other albums as well). So it's a little more solid then Surfin USA and Surfin Safari, it flows well from start to finish, and it's also technically a concept album, so there's that too.
18 - That's Why God Made The Radio (2012)
Huge jump ahead to 2012, when the surviving members of the Beach Boys (Mike Love, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Bruce Johnston and David Marks) reunited for an album and a world tour. The result, while not their best, is almost miraculous, especially considering their releases during the 90s. The title track, Isn't It Time, the wonderful three part suite closing the album, all is wonderfully written, performed, and drenched in their signature harmonies. There are a few weaker tracks, and also a modern production that sounds a bit sterile at times, but overall it's certainyl their best album since the 70s.
17 - Surfer Girl (1963)
Things start to get serious here. Brian Wilson is becoming a great songwriter, and maybe his first signature song is the legendary title track of this album. There's also Catch A Wave, the nostalgic The Surfer Moon, the happy Hawaii, and also the other great classic In My Room. It's certainly their first strong album, despite the usual fillers (before judging, try putting out three albums a year, recorded in between concerts and who knows what else).
16 - Shut Down Volume II (1964)
Fun Fun Fun and Don't Worry Baby are enough to save any album, but to keep the level up there's also The Warmth Of The Sun, one of their most beautiful songs, and Keep An Eye On Summer, that is also up there itself. The rest has its highs and lows, from the wonderful version of Why Do Fools Fall In Love to In The Parking Lot, and a weird drum solo by Dennis to close the album. A bit of a mess of a tracklist, but with some of their best songs ever in it, it's an essential listen.
15 - The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)
Personally, this, along with Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You, is my favourite Christmas album of all time. It has two distinct halves: the first one is more upbeat and "rock", with the hit Little Saint Nick (which is even better in the single version), the classic Frosty The Snowman, and other great tracks like Christmas Day. The second side is different, it has a bunch of covers with an orchestral arrangement by Dick Reynolds, like We Three Kings Of Orient Are, White Christmas and Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, all with wonderful vocal harmonies. The highlight here is Blue Christmas, with one of the most amazing vocal performances by Brian. A charming little album if you are in the right mood (and time of the year).
14 - 20/20 (1969)
This is one of the first albums in which Brian took a step back and the rest of the band contributed much more compared to the past (and the artwork shows it). Not to say that he didn't do anything: the great Do It Again is mostly his, as is the beautiful Time To Get Alone, one of the best tracks on the album. Weirdly, the album closes with Our Prayer and Cabinessence, from the legendary Smile Sessions; great tracks, don't get me wrong, but totally out of place here. The cover of I Can Hear Music is fun, with great vocals by Carl Wilson, and the instrumental The Nearest Faraway Place by Bruce Johnston is beautiful, while Dennis contributed with the rocking All I Want To Do, the intense Be With Me and the eerie Never Learn Not To Love (which is actually by Charles Manson but we don't say that too loudly). Other covers like Bluebirds Over The Mountain and Cottonfields complete an album that is very hard to describe. It's enjoyable, it has some great music, but no direction whatsoever, and the Smile tracks don't help at all. They will do better as a band in the near future, but this is already a very interesting listen.
13 - Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!) (1965)
After the beautiful The Beach Boys Today!, this album took a step back, mainly to accomodate Capitol Records' request of having more songs thatt would work as singles. And there are some great ones: California Girls alone could make any album worth listening, while the other "hits" (if we exclude You're So Good To Me, an high energy song that is almost a bubblegum song ante-litteram) were either covers (Then I Kissed Her) or re-recordings (Help Me Rhonda). Then there's the great Let Him Run Wild, the weird Amusement Park USA, the wonderful instrumental Summer Means New Love, but the rest just doesn't hold up to the very high level of everything they released in late '64 (All Summer Long) and early '65 (Today!). A nice and fun album with a summer vibe, but a step back artistically.
12 - Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" (1972)
The first album in which Brian Wilson had almost nothing to do. Two new members are now part of the band (Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, from the band Flame), which helped a lot in concerts, and generally this album could be divided in four sections. There's two songs in which Brian had a hand in writing and Carl sang (the rocking You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone and Marcella), the Al Jardine/Mike Love songs (the almost gospel He come Down and the meditative masterpiece that is All This Is That), Dennis' songs (the big, orchestral, and heavily intense Make It Good and Cuddle Up), and Blondie and Ricky's songs (the soulful Here She Comes and the more country Hold On Dear Brother). Now, of course different band members contributed to each other's songs, but overall, stilistically speaking, this division is evident. Counting that, the album is very underrated, it has its own charm, it's solid, it hasn't got a bad song in it, it just doesn't sound like just one band. What is evident here is that they were seriously trying to sound like a band of the seventies, they were moving on artistically, which is always a good thing. Worth a listen or two. Or three.
11 - Holland (1973)
Same band, similar sound, better overall result. Recorded in Holland for some reason (hence the title), here the ingredients are better mixed, and it sounds like an actual band. Brian Wilson still doesn't do much (I'll come back on this later), but he is the main writer of probably the most famous song on the album, sung by Blondie: Sail On Sailor. Mike Love and Al Jardine brought us a kind of a three part suite called California Saga, which, despite some weird narrated parts, flows well and resolves in the fun closing California Saga: California. Dennis instead wrote the wonderful Only With You (with Mike Love!!) and Steamboat, one of the best tracks on the album, sung by Carl. Blondie and Ricky have only one song on here, Leaving This Town, while Carl wrote one of his few masterpieces, the intense The Trader. The weird Funky Pretty closes a very solid album which sadly marks the end of this phase of the band, before the revival of 15 Big Ones.
Brian actually wrote some more music which didn't make it into the album, but found its place in a bonus EP sold with it. Mount Vernon and Fairway is some kind of fairytale written by him, assembled by Carl and narrated by their manager Jack Rieley, drenched in wierd synthesisers and an atmosphere that is not too far from Smile. A wierd 12 minutes that is a nice addition to a wonderful album.
10 - Surf's Up (1971)
After the beautiful Sunflower, which was a commercial failure, the Beach Boys tried to come up with something to make them more relevant. No love songs this time, an overall darker vibe, and the legendary title track (assembled and finished in this occasion from the Smile tapes) to close it. If we don't count the weirder tracks like Student Demonstration Time and Take A Load Off Your Feet, the rest is actually some of the best music the band has ever produced. Carl shines through the album with his two songs Long Promised Road and Feel Flows: relaxed, meditative and intense tracks that are probably the best music he ever wrote, while the last three songs on the album, all written by Brian, are what bring the album to an even higher level. A Day In The Life Of A Tree, sung by Jack Rieley, Till I Die and the title track, one after the other, is probably one of the most moving musical sections ever put on record. Till I Die alone is one of the most incredible, unexpected and just beautiful compositions by Brian, while Surf's Up, with wonderful lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, is probably one of his crowning achievements. And how can we forget about Bruce's Disney Girls, a very sweet song the perfectly fits in an album that deserves to be listened.
9 - All Summer Long (1964)
Back to the sunny early 60s with what is my favourite album amongst the early ones. I Get Around is probably the best of their early hits (and it's more complicated than it sounds), while the title track is not far behind at all. Then there's Wendy, We'll Run Away, Hushabye, Little Honda, Don't Back Down, Girls On The Beach: one classic track after the other. There are of course some filler like Carl's Big Chance and Our Favourite Recording Session, but that's to be expected. Overall, this album ideally closes the first phase of the Beach Boys, showing more maturity, better songs, better production, and it has a kind of "end of summer" vibe, which is appropriate considering it will be followed by the Christmas album and the more reflective Today!. An essential listen.
8 - Wild Honey (1967)
Part of a trio of albums that were characterized by a more lo-fi kind of production, since they were recorded at Brian Wilson's home studio (an early example of "home recording", way before it became common), and also an example of where they were as a band after the failure of Smile. While Smiley Smile was a weird one (as we'll see down below), Wild Honey, recorded in a very short time after an aborted live album recorded in Hawaii, is much more "warm", upbeat and just fun to listen to. It's the album in which Carl Wilson finally shines as a singer in songs like the powerful title track and the catchy Darlin', along with the cover of Stevie Wonder's I Was Made To Love Her. I'd Love Just Once To See You and, especially, Let The Wind Blow are classic Brian Wilson songs, and the whole album sounds like a band having fun, despite the hard time they were having.
7 - Smiley Smile (1967)
Probably one of their weirdest album, in a good way. Right after Smile was abandoned, a small studio was set up at Brian's house, and there the band recorded this album. On one hand you have big production masterpieces like Good Vibrations and Heroes And Villains, already released as singles, on the other hand you have a series of stripped down, weird, crazy tunes like She's Going Bald, Little Pad, and Gettin' Hungry. Most of the album consists of just voices and very few instruments, with a few tracks from the aborted Smile (Wind Chimes, Wonderful and Vegetables) all with a stripped down arrangement, sometimes unrecognizable from the original version on the Smile tapes. It was a huge disappointment when it came out, but the weirdness of it, the lo-fi production, the courage it had in a certain way, made it a favourite of many fans, including myself.
6 - The Beach Boys Love You (1977)
Talking about weirdness, this one is another good contender. After 15 Big Ones, Brian re-gained some confidence as a writer and producer, and the idea was to make a solo album. As it turned out, the rest of the band wasn't too happy about it, so it became a Beach Boys album. This is probabily the most "Brian" album since Pet Sounds, but the sound is radically different, being based mainly on synthesizers and drum machines, a sound that was way ahead of its time (it became the norm years later with post punk and new wave). The songs are short, quirky, with lyrics that go from the solar system to Johnny Carson to young girls on roller skates (sung by the raspy voice of a 35 years old bearded man, just to make things weirder). Amongst the weirdness, a few songs are genuinely good, like The Night Was So Young, I'll Bet He's Nice, Let's Put Our Hears Together and I Wanna Pick You Up, while others are pure fun, like Ding Dang, or Solar System. An underrated album that needs to be listened by many more people.
5 - Friends (1968)
The last of the lo-fi trio, this is the obligatory "meditation inspired" late 60s album. The sound is a bit more ambitious compared to the previous two, with more session musicians added, and the sound is closer the the more orchestral Pet Sounds, while still retaining its stripped down nature. There is a calmness and serenity that permeates all the songs, from the opening Meant For You, to the unpredictable waltz of the title track, to the first songs by Dennis (the beautiful and complex Little Bird and the dreamy Be Still). Everything that sounded tentative and sometimes too experimental on the previous two albums is completely on focus here, and the result is like a little peaceful island in which everyone can rest for a while. There's no other album like this, and the only bad thing about it is that it's extremely short!
4 - Sunflower (1970)
After changing label from Capitol to Warner and done a couple of attempts at releasing an album with different tracklists, finally Sunflower comes out in 1970. While a commercial failure, the album is probably the best group effort that they ever released. Every member of the band has its chance to shine: Brian is still writing wonderful tunes (the everchanging This Whole World, the orchestral Our Sweet Love, the finally finished gem that is Cool Cool Water...), while Dennis has no less than four songs, comprising one of his best ones, the intense Forever. Even Bruce Johnston has a couple of strong songs, Tears In The Morning and Deirdre, and Mike Love gives us one of his best singing performances in All I Wanna Do. Overall this is one of the Beach Boys' strongest albums, criminally underrated and overlooked for decades, it deserves much more attention (and the new Feel Flows boxset might just be the right chance to give this album a new life).
3 - The Beach Boys Today! (1965)
This is the album that perfectly represents Brian Wilson's maturity as a composer and producer. While the best is yet to come, Today! is, without a doubt, their strongest album released up to that point. The first side is generally upbeat, with the first version of Help Me Rhonda and great songs like When I Grow Up To Be A Man and Don't Hurt My Little Sister, along with the irresistible Dance, Dance, Dance. The second side, however, is where Brian and the guys shine, with a series of slower love songs with wonderful harmonies and arrangements. Please Let Me Wonder is one of the best songs ever written, closely followed by Kiss Me Baby, while the heart wrenching In The Back Of My Mind shows a young Dennis already singing in his usual intense way. The whole second side is like a final rehearsal for Pet Sounds, or a miniature version of it, with many of the ingredents that we will see in that album a year later. On the whole, Today! is a legendary album.
2 - Pet Sounds (1966)
What to say about Pet Sounds that hasn't already been said? One of the best albums ever released in the history of pop music, with amazing songs and incredible arrangements and production. From Wouldn't It Be Nice to God Only Knows, from Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) to Caroline, No, from You Still Believe In Me to Sloop John B, even the "lesser" tracks like Here Today or That's Not Me have something in them that puts them miles away from much of what they did before. Brian (with the help of Tony Asher who wrote the lyrics) reaches his peak here when it comes to music that sounds and feels great, that is universal, sincere, intense, full of love. Even if much of the music is played by the Wrecking Crew and the band basically just sings, this it the Beach Boys' album that everyone should listen to at least once in their life.
1 - The SMiLE Sessions (1967)
Now, while Pet Sounds would have been number one up until 2011, the release of The Smile Session changed things a little bit, at least for me. For years theories, bootleg versions and so on were everything people had about Smile, which was officially aborted in the summer of '67, after nearly a year in the making. Some tracks went into subsequent albums, and in 2004 an official version, re-recorded by Brian and his live band, The Wondermints, finally offered some kind of closure. I say some kind, because in 2011, finally, an official version that mirrored the 2004 tracklist using the available original Beach Boys' recordings came out, with a lot of bonus material from the sessions, all on five discs. Now, of course this is not what Smile would have been had it been released in 1967, however, whatever this may be, it contains without a doubt some of the best music ever written and recorded, not just by The Beach Boys. The relative discipline of Pet Sounds is mostly gone, to leave space for more experimental ideas, modular composition, humour, weird instruments and sound effects, almost if Good Vibrations was extended beyond the limits of anyone's imagination. There are obviously songs that stand out, like Heroes And Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful, Wind Chimes, Vega-Tables, Surf's Up, but the whole album (or better, this version of the album) offers so much that we could write entire books about it. And let's not even start about the plethora of bonus material from the sessions, that goes from just enjoyable to revelatory. The work Brian and Van Dyke Parks did at the time is legendary, and this album, in whatever form, inspired and will inspire new music more than we can imagine. It's not perfect, of course, but perfection is boring, Smile is not.