The Beach Boys

“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations”

Album Year Rating
Today! 1965 3.00/pi
Today! / Summer Days 1965 3.01/pi
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) 1965 2.61/pi
Pet Sounds 1966 3.08/pi

Main lineup: Brian Wilson: bass, vocals. Al Jardine: guitar, vocals. Mike Love: vocals, asshole. Carl Wilson: guitar, vocals. Dennis Wilson: drums, vocals.

Other personnel: Bruce Johnston: bass, vocals, filling in for Brian live after 1965.

TODAY!

1965; Rating: 3.00/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ~ / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Do You Wanna Dance [A]
  • 02 Good to My Baby [A−]
  • 03 Don’t Hurt My Little Sister [A−]
  • 04 When I Grow Up (To Be a Man) [A]
  • 05 Help Me Ronda (LP Version) [A]
  • 06 Dance Dance Dance [A−]
  • 07 Please Let Me Wonder [A+]
  • 08 I’m So Young [A−]
  • 09 Kiss Me Baby [A]
  • 10 She Knows Me Too Well [A]
  • 11 In the Back of My Mind [A−]
  • 12 Bull Session with Big Daddy [i]

Sitting in a disheveled heap in the long shadow of Pet Sounds, every other Beach Boys album has understandably been relegated to second class status. Few will contest the fact that Bob’s Big Boy’s bloated catalogue is dreadfully inconsistent. But, my friends, there’s gold in them thar California hills! Don’t believe me? Give one listen to Today!, the first album Brian produced following his retirement from touring. Without a doubt, Today! is one of the very finest pop albums of the 60’s. In fact, it would itself be the towering pinnacle of almost any artist’s career, and the fact that Brian topped it a year later is a testament to his enormous talent at the peak of his powers.

The album is structured as a sort of mini-double-album, with side 1 reprising the band’s standard girl-happy dance-pop sound, and side 2 forming a suite of gorgeous ballads that points very obviously towards P** S****—especially “Please Let Me Wonder”, which is one of the best songs full stop.

The happy-fappy first side understandably gets a bit overshadowed, but a closer examination shows that it is itself no excercise in treading water—tracks like “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” and “Help Me Ronda” (here in its rougher original take) do just as much to demonstrate Brian’s blossoming technical prowess and songwriting sophistication.

But the really interesting thing is that, for arguably the first and last time in the history of the world, there is not a single dud on here (unless you count the pointless studio chatter segment at the end.) Even the two cover tunes are worthy additions that benefit greatly from Brian’s increasingly masterful arrangements. Golly, I sure am expecting big things from their next magnum opus!

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TODAY! / SUMMER DAYS

1965; Rating: 3.01/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: ~ / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++

  • 1–12 Today!
  • 13–24 Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)

Bonus tracks:

  • 25 The Little Girl I Once Knew [A]
  • 26 Dance, Dance, Dance (Alternate Take) [A−]
  • 27 I’m So Young (Alternate Take) [A−]
  • 28 Let Him Run Wild (Alternate Take) [A]
  • 29 Graduation Day [B]

Another in Capitol’s line of uncharacteristically reasonable twofer compilations, this CD collects Today! and Summer Days on one disc along with five bonus tracks: a few not-very-alternate takes and a pretty great non-LP single from late 1965 that stalled at #20 on the charts for whatever reason (the liner note guy attributes it to the unusual “silence break” that leads into the chorus.)

Unlike most Beach Boys albums, these two would actually be worth paying full price for individually (especially Today!) but there’s no reason to if you can find this handy little package.

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SUMMER DAYS (AND SUMMER NIGHTS!!)

1965; Rating: 2.61/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: − / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++

  • 01 The Girl from New York City [A]
  • 02 Amusement Parks U.S.A. [B+]
  • 03 Then I Kissed Her [A]
  • 04 Salt Lake City [B]
  • 05 Girl Don’t Tell Me [B+]
  • 06 Help Me Rhonda (7" Version) [A]
  • 07 California Girls [A+]
  • 08 Let Him Run Wild [A]
  • 09 You’re So Good to Me [A−]
  • 10 Summer Means New Love [B+]
  • 11 I’m Bugged at My Old Man [i]
  • 12 And Your Dream Comes True [A−]

DISAPPOINTMENT! WOE! ALAS!

If there was ever an obvious stopgap of an album, it’s this one. What makes it interesting is the fact that it’s an obvious stopgap by one of the greatest pop composers of all time, done at the peak of his powers. The result is a mess with a few truly essential songs surrounded by odd filler. Plus two (count ’em) exclamation marks! Fuck you, Today!!!

Capitol was accustomed to getting three albums a year from their boys, you see, and Brian was dragging his feet while he worked on his eventual masterpiece. Nevertheless, he agreed to throw together a new LP to capitalize on the success of singles like “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda”. Wait, wasn’t “Rhonda” already on the last album? Well, yes, but then it was called “Help Me Ronda”. The new version here is shorter, tighter, and a number 1 hit single, so on it goes again.

Hey, while we’re capitalizing on the success of singles, how about other people’s? Thus we have “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, which suspiciously resembles “Ticket to Ride”, or “Then I Kissed Her”, which at least has the decency to admit to being a Phil Spector cover (and at this point, Brian’s production is seriously starting to rival his hero’s.)

But that’s not the end of the filler, nosirree. On top of that, we have three extremely dorky novelty tracks: “Amusement Parks USA”, which vomits all over the “going to the carnival with a girl” genre with its cornball circus sound effects; “Salt Lake City”, a horrifying tribute to a city where the band was apparently particularly popular—it sounds like a promotional jingle for the local chamber of commerce, which, naturally, is what it became; and finally the joke song “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man”, which is actually rather creepy and even affecting given the very real problems in the Wilson family, but it’s not something you’ll want to listen to very often.

So why not consign this album to the compost bin? Well, for starters, if you need the merits of “California Girls” or “Rhonda” explained to you, you need to be slapped. But even assuming you’ve already got those on one of the band’s ubiquitous greatest hits CDs, you’ll be wanting ace album tracks like “The Girl from New York City” (a tribute to, but this time not a ripoff of, the Ad-Libs’ “Boy from New York City”.) And what about “Let Him Run Wild”, a ballad that would have fit in nicely on side 2 of Today!? Even the relatively slight “You’re So Good to Me” is still a blast.

Rounding out the tracklist are a couple more oddities: a gorgeous little a cappella track, and a pretty instrumental. Slap it all together and send it to the factory!

Incidentally, a rarely remarked-upon feature of this album is its theme of contradictory flattery: the first track finds “the LA boys” smitten with New York girls; in “Salt Lake City”, they target the Mormon set with claims that Utah is “girl for girl…the cutest of the western states”; then, of course, along comes “California Girls” to show us where the boys’ true loyalites lie (or does it?????(??????)??) (???)

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PET SOUNDS

1966; Rating: 3.08/pi

Composition: ++ / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Wouldn’t It Be Nice? [A+]
  • 02 You Still Believe in Me [A]
  • 03 That’s Not Me [A−]
  • 04 Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) [B+]
  • 05 I’m Waiting for the Day [A]
  • 06 Let’s Go Away for Awhile [B+]
  • 07 Sloop John B [A]
  • 08 God Only Knows [A+]
  • 09 I Know There’s an Answer [A]
  • 10 Here Today [A+]
  • 11 I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times [A+]
  • 12 Pet Sounds [A]
  • 13 Caroline, No [A]

Bonus tracks:

  • 14 Hang on to Your Ego (I Know There’s an Answer Outtake) [A]
  • 15–27 The Whole Album Again in Stereo

The greatness of this album has sometimes been obscured by some of the hype surrounding it (yeah, I know, real big insight there.) I’m referring to the bloviation about innovation, about it being unprecedented use of the recording studio, about whether or not it counts as a “concept album.” You’re likely to hear phrases like “teenage symphony to God.” You may be informed that Pet Sounds is the album that inspired Sgt. Pepper (fuck you, no one cares.)

Pet Sounds is basically just a collection of pop songs. The only thing that truly distinguishes it from any other such collection is the fact that the pop songs on this album are better than the pop songs on all those other albums. No, the album is not perfect—it is, in fact, less consistent than Today! was, getting slightly mired somewhere in the middle of side one. But that brief flirtation with the merely good is soon corrected.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “God Only Knows” are the universally acknowledged classics here, along with, to a lesser extent, the band’s cover of “Sloop John B”. The latter was not intended to be a part of Pet Sounds, but record compony policy was to cram every hit onto an album. It doesn’t really fit thematically, but I don’t forsee that being an issue for you unless you are a sad, hateful person.

Those three singles alone could trump just about any pop album you care to name, but the album tracks are just as good, if not better. “I’m Waiting for the Day” is the closest anything on here comes to actual rock, with a false ending that leads to a superfriends coda which I will transcribe thus: “You didn’t think! (No!) (Aaaaaaooooh!) (Do do do do-do-do) That I could sit around and let him work!? (Ha ha!) (Aaaaaaooooh!) (Do do do do-do-do) / You didn’t think! (Aaaaaaooooh!) (Do do do do-do-do) That I could sit back and watch him take you?! (Aaaaaaooooh!) (Do do do do-do-do)’ And what about the unforgivably good “You Still Believe in Me”? I love that solitary bicycle horn honking during the climax of the song—which has the kind of symphonic dynamics that no pop producer had ever attempted. Yeah, I know I said I wasn’t gonna rack up a list of the album’s innovations, but I’m an asshole.

Moving the needle to side 2, we find Brian getting more introspective than ever before, pondering the impermanence of love (“Here Today”) and his frustration with the emotional distance of those around him (“I Know There’s an Answer”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”). Then he deflates the mood a little with a random burst of James Bond music in the form of the instrumental title track, which some people dislike for reasons unknown to me—it’s short and catchy as fuck. Finally, “Caroline, No” finishes things off on a rather unhopeful note, narrating a futile attempt to come to terms with the end of a relationship. Weighty stuff, despite the inscrutable dog ’n’ train samples that intrude on the final notes. But the genius of it is that it works not through heavy-handed philosophizing (which Brian would probably not be capable of anyway) but instead through such a simple gesture as the way the words “Caroline” and “no” melt together inseparably.

A word about words: Brian had the good sense on this occasion to not involve Mike Love with the songwriting process, instead collaborating with Tony Asher. The result is, as has been suggested, not exactly Dylan, but that’s probably for the better. Instead, Asher helps Brian get his ideas across is a straightforward, effective way while blessedly avoiding the usual detours into crass moronsploitation. Sadly, he and Brian have never, as far as I know, collaborated since.

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