Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums of all time. There’s no doubt about it.
Released by The Beach Boys in 1966, it peaked at number 10 on the charts, which was actually considered a disappointment seeing as how successful the band had been at the time. While modern critics have come to understand how groundbreaking this album is, at the time, critical reception was also more mixed than previous albums, with some recognizing the album’s intricate genius while others were confused by the dramatic change in sound and tone from the albums of yesteryear. After all, the last Beach Boys album before this point was the empty-headed fun of The Beach Boys Party!
Within a year, however, the tides turned: following Pet Sounds was the single “Good Vibrations,” a compositional masterwork that shot to #1 on the charts and restored The Beach Boys in the public eye, at least for a moment.
“Good Vibrations” was intended to be one of the songs off of an album called SMiLE, a collection of sounds that would go in even more bizarre and interesting directions than its predecessor. However, Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental illness and drug use, as well as anxiety over how the public would view the album, ultimately led to the album being shut down, at least for the time being. Some of the recordings for this album were quickly compiled into Smiley Smile, which confused many and did not perform well on the charts. This sudden halt in momentum was highly detrimental to both Brian’s mental health and the band’s status as stars, and for many, this is where the story of the Beach Boys ends. This could not be farther from the truth.
From 1967 to 1974, The Beach Boys proved themselves to be remarkable composers, lyricists, and musicians, even with the dwindling participation of Brian, though he still contributed songs and ideas from time to time. Starting with Wild Honey and ending with Holland, there were ideas and gems abound on each tracklist.
Wild Honey seems to be The Beach Boys dusting themselves off after Smiley Smile. The title track, standout single “Darlin’” (which shot to a refreshing #19 on the charts), and “How She Boogalooed It” proved that the boys could still have fun while advancing themselves as musicians. Other songs such as “Let the Wind Blow,” “I’d Love Just Once to See You,” and “Aren’t You Glad,” serve as foreshadowing to what was to come from the band in the future, with comprehensive melodies and thoughtful pacing. Carl Wilson also continues to prove himself as a vocal powerhouse on this album, his singing on “Darlin’” being particularly impressive.
Friends, released in 1968, is one of the most overlooked albums in the band’s discography. The vocal stylings and song structures give off the sense that this album is the perfect pairing of pre-Pet Sounds pop sensibilities and post-Pet Sounds musical knowledge. “Anna Lee, The Healer,” “Passing By,” and the title track have an innocence to them that harkens back to days on the beach while refusing to stop moving forward. Dennis Wilson also begins to come out of his shell on this album, writing the songs “Little Bird” and “Be Still,” which are both beautiful songs and serve as indicators of where Dennis’s writing would go in the future. Overall, the album feels very appropriate for the time and features some of the strongest vocal concoctions from the band, particularly on the chorus of “Anna Lee, The Healer.”
20/20 sees the band emerge from the gentleness of Friends with a newfound grit and energy while still preserving their melodic roots. The first two tracks on the album, Mike Love’s perfect nostalgia bait “Do It Again” and a gloriously performed cover of The Ronettes “I Can Hear Music” kick the album off in style and even got some love from the record buying public. The tight, punchy pop of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” is punctuated by loud, surprisingly distorted guitar licks throughout, while “All I Want To Do” features some of Mike Love’s most passionate lyrics yet, making the song a fun listen. However, the album isn’t all late 60’s coarseness: newly minted member Bruce Johnston has his moment in the spotlight with the piano instrumental “The Nearest Faraway Place,” and Dennis Wilson’s gently swaying “Be With Me” serves as a stunning power ballad. Other standouts include Al Jardine’s jaunty take on “Cotton Fields,” the soothing waltz “Time to Get Alone,” and the surprise SMiLE compositions “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence,” which, while they don’t entirely fit the feel of the album, are still mind blowing musical experiments.
The 1970’s kicked off with Sunflower, one of the band’s greatest albums. The Dennis composition “Slip on Through” kicks things off with gusto, followed by the soulful “This Whole World” and “Add Some Music to Your Day,” the latter of which features incredibly rich vocal harmonies. “It’s About Time” still stands out to this day as one of the band’s most grandiose, powerful tunes; it would become a killer live track in years to come. Ballads such as Bruce Johnston’s “Tears in the Morning” and Dennis Wilson’s classic love song “Forever” showcase a new dimension of the band’s softer side. The sonic experimentation on this record must be noted as well, with the cavernous opening of “Dierdre,” the proto-dream pop of “All I Wanna Do,” and the intricate, multifaceted “Cool, Cool Water,” the latter originating during the SMiLe sessions, showcasing a band not just evolving with the times, but leading the pack.
1971’s Surf’s Up features an even more eclectic mix of material. The album kicks off with the catchy yet urgent “Don’t Go Near The Water,” an environmental message that still holds up today, sadly. Following this song is “Long Promised Road,” which serves as a reminder of how amazing Carl’s voice is. Other standouts on the album include the sunkissed Bruce Johnston classic “Disney Girls (1957),” the thoughtful and atmospheric “Feel Flows,” and the incredibly bleak, Brian Wilson-penned “‘Til I Die.” Capping off the album is one of the more famous SMiLE cuts, the title track. Featuring multiple segments that coalesce under a dusky, murky instrumental and obscure lyrics, the song is yet another example of Brian Wilson’s compositional abilities.
In the following year, the band released two albums, both featuring new members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, formerly of the band The Flame. These albums, Carl and the Passions – So Tough and Holland, showcase a band that is confidently wading into the future. At this point, The Beach Boys had begun to see renewed critical acclaim and a steadily increasing presence at their live shows, though record sales were still lacking. They were embracing a new image, and with that, they kicked down the door in 1972 with some of their strongest work yet.
Carl and the Passions opens with “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone,” a funky number that shows off a groovier side of The Beach Boys. It features intricate vocal harmonies, tight guitar solos, and stabbing piano hits that roll it along at a quick pace with Ricky’s drumming. Blondie gets his first shot at the spotlight with the strutting “Here She Comes,” on which he proves himself to be a strong vocalist. “Marcella,” is a quintessential 70’s Beach Boys track, with its sultry piano, lush guitars, rich production, and stacked vocals that flow every which way during the chorus of the song. “Make it Good,” is another spacious, beautiful Dennis Wilson ballad, with his vulnerable vocal backed by a Hollywood-esque wall of orchestration and vocal harmonies that could bring a tear to even the most hardened listener’s eye. “All This is That” feels like a late 60’s cut, with its meditative themes, blissful harmonies, and mellow vibes. Ending the album is “Cuddle Up,” another Dennis ballad that closes the curtain with a deeply emotional bow.
Later that year came Holland, truly a spectacular album. These nine songs feel like the culmination of years of growing and maturing as artists. “Sail On, Sailor” is a powerful and entertaining opener fronted by Blondie, and its swelling 6/8 time instrumentation gives it an appropriate seafaring feel. The surprisingly sludgy and austere “Steamboat” follows, with Carl’s plaintive vocal acting as a beacon within the murky low tones of the instrumentation. The next three songs, “Big Sur,” “The Beaks of Eagles,” and “California” all comprise a suite known as The California Saga. The fact that The Beach Boys even attempted a song suite is commendable, but the songs included are even more so. “Big Sur” is a charming waltz powered by harmonica and pedal steel guitar. Dreamy lyrics describe elements of California that are often overlooked, such as its forests. “The Beaks of Eagles” is a stunningly creative piece, featuring spoken word sections accompanied by flute flourishes, piano, and ghostly harmonies. In contrast, there are also sections of the song that roll merrily along, as if to break the tension. Finally, “California” is a euphoric, grown up version of the 60’s sound, with Mike Love harkening back to multiple iconic Californian sites such as the Big Sur Congregation and the farmhouse in the sycamores. It’s a lot of fun and is probably the most authentically “Beach Boys” the band had been in years.
The second side of the album starts off with “The Trader,” a stalwart piece of music with its head held high before things quiet down after a sudden key change from D major to C major halfway through. “Leaving This Town” stands as Blondie and Ricky’s highlight during their time with the band, with haunting piano chords, heart wrenching lyrics, and a synthesizer solo of all things burning the song into the mind of the listener. “Only With You” stands out as one of Dennis’s most beautiful compositions. Velvety piano mixes with faint, heavenly strings in a way that has hardly ever happened, with the watery production actually helping the song’s graceful nature. Finally, “Funky Pretty” ends the album with some quality lyrics from Mike Love and an applause-worthy instrumental from the band. Also of note is the companion EP to this album, Brian Wilson’s fairytale Mt. Vernon and Fairway, the intriguing instrumental and descriptive narration making it a strange listen that proves that Brian still had something to say.
After 1974, with the release of the hugely successful best hits compilation Endless Summer, the dream was over, and the music that followed largely revolved around trying to repeat past successes, chase pop trends, and cover oldies. However, the music produced in 1967-74 proves not only that The Beach Boys were far from adrift after Pet Sounds, but that each member could shine in his own right. Even the worst cuts from this era demonstrate that the band was fighting into the future, discovering new and interesting ways to express themselves. Although not nearly enough people know about these classic albums, for those who have listened to them, they will always stand the test of time as musical classics.