Brian Wilson — 71??? That’s right, this Beach “Boy” turns 71 this month. He’s been making music for more than fifty years, and is still releasing albums. I saw The Beach Boys with and without him in the seventies, and I got to see his live re-creations, during the ‘00s, of his Pet Sounds and Smile albums. (I also saw a “Beach Boys” concert in the nineties, but neither Brian nor his brothers were anywhere in sight.)
So, to mark Mr. Wilson’s birthday, here’s a list of my all-time favorite BW songs.
No surprise to find this on a list of Brian Wilson’s best. The much-honored 1966 song was the group’s first million-seller. The recording process involved seventeen sessions at four different studios, with the pieces assembled to make the final, fluid product. The ’66 version featured a theremin (the sliding, warbly instrument often used in sci-fi flicks) and the lead vocals of brother Carl.
Trivia: Tony Asher wrote lyrics for the song initially, but Beach Boy Mike Love’s lyrics were used on the 1966 album and single. The 2004 version includes Tony Asher’s lyrics.
In my opinion, the first four bars of this single are the best intro in pop music. The rest of the song maintains that energy. Despite the clash of the trite, cool-teen lyrics with the complex harmonies and arrangement, it all works, and was stunning upon its release in 1964.
Trivia: This song was the group’s first number-one hit.
The influential Pet Sounds album is often considered to be Brian Wilson’s masterpiece. It was influenced by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and, in turn, influenced the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album, but was not initially as successful as previous Beach Boys albums. “God Only Knows,” one of several hits from Pet Sounds, is an exceptionally gorgeous production, among many on the album.
Trivia: Brian and lyricist Tony Asher worried that the song wouldn’t be played on the radio because it had the word “God” in the title.
This one is my runner-up nominee for best vocal song opening ever. With its thoughtful lyrics and complicated arrangement, this was not like anything else out there in ‘64.
Trivia: The song was part of the Today! album, which initiated the group’s transformation from songs about cars and surfing to more conceptual themes.
An odd little gem from 1967, it was part of the fractured Smile project, and appeared on the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile and on the 2004 Brian Wilson Presents Smile album. My favorite version was recorded in 1995 on the album of remakes I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. It was done without the Boys, but with a fine band and a soulful trio backing Brian’s lead vocal. The song is rich and strange in any form, but this version’s worth looking for.
Trivia: The album I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times was co-produced by Don Was of Was (Not Was), who also directed the documentary of the album’s recording.
The Beach Boys Christmas Album of 1963 contained five original numbers, of which this song, also issued as a single, is a standout. It has all the elements of the group’s early hits: rich harmonies, chugging guitars, and a falsetto coda fade. With other lyrics, it would’ve just been a part of the Beach Boys’ hit parade, instead of a holiday classic.
Trivia: Another song on the album, “Christmas Day,” was the first Beach Boys song to feature the lead vocals of Al Jardine (who later sang lead on “Help Me, Rhonda”).
This non-Beach Boys song was actually written by Van Dyke Parks, whose role with Brian Wilson was usually only that of lyricist. But Parks wrote the music and lyrics for this 1995 album opener and let Brian arrange and sing the ornate vocals. The pair had high hopes for the Orange Crate Art album, but, alas, it flopped.
Trivia: Mike Love was not a fan of Parks’ arcane lyrics, referring to them as “acid alliteration.”
Brian has said that the 1968 Friends album, one of the band’s worst sellers, was among his favorites. I like it a lot, too, but it is pretty lightweight. Along with the title song, “Be Here in the Morning” has a bright and sunny West Coast aura. Another album highlight, “Little Bird,” was one of the few Beach Boys songs written by brother Dennis (with an assist from brother Brian).
Trivia: Another of Dennis Wilson’s songwriting partners was Charles Manson.
This beautiful ballad was the B-side to the bouncy ’64 hit “Dance, Dance, Dance.” It was written by Brian and Mike Love the night of JFK’s assassination, but is actually about unrequited love. Brian’s unexpected chord changes and lush harmony arrangements are stellar.
Trivia: This song was covered by Brian’s dad Murry on his one and only album, The Many Moods of Murry Wilson (a real collector’s item).