Best Songs by Brian Wilson (and the Beach Boys)

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.

“Good Vibrations”

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.

“I Get Around”

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.

“God Only Knows”

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.

When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)

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.

Wonderful

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.

Little Saint Nick

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”).

Orange Crate Art

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.”

Be Here in the Morning

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.

The Warmth of the Sun

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).

Steve is Staffing & Development Manager (aka the “Buy Guy”) at Half Price Books Corporate.

Staff Picks: Top Ten Music Biographies

I own a lotta books. It’s a wonderful sickness (and I’m not as sick as my wife, who owns about five times as many as I do).  A pretty good number of my books are books about music.

Here’s a list of my 10 favorite music biographies, along with a playlist below:

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow (1946)–This autobiography of minor jazz player and major hepcat Mezz Mezzrow was written entirely in hep lingo and is a real trip to read. Mezz was white but “went black” in the thirties, immersing himself in the culture and jamming with and dealing pot to some of the great jazzmen of the era.

Favorite Song: “Really the Blues”— This is the song that gave the book its name.  Mezz Mezzrow joins the great clarinetist Sidney Bechet in solos on the Tommy Ladnier & His Orchestra recording.

Last Train to Memphis (1994), Careless Love (1999) by Peter Guralnick–This two-volume bio of The King is a great story even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, because Peter Guralnick is the best music biographer out there.  (Also check out his bio of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie.)  The books are chock full of improbable success and failure, obsession, and some really weird behavior.

Favorite Song: “Don’t Be Cruel”— Everyone (except Elvis haters) has their own King faves.  This is the one that first got me interested in music.

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus (1971)–A third-person autobiography?  Yes, indeed.  The great jazz composer Charles Mingus takes us for a bumpy ride along his stream-of-consciousness.

Favorite Song: “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat”— Mingus is best enjoyed in the long form.  His album Mingus, Ah-Um, which features the best version of this song, is great from start to finish.  Another high point is “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”

Bessie by Chris Albertson (1972)–What was it about Bessie Smith that makes us keep listening to her songs eighty years after they were recorded?  Who cares?  Just listen to the songs!  But to go further with it, this book is a respectful but no-holds-barred look at the blues queen’s troubled life.

Favorite Song: “My Sweetie Went Away”— You can’t go wrong with Bessie Smith.  This one I like slightly more than all of her others.

Lush Life by David Hajdu (1996)–This is the story of the unique songwriter Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right-hand man, told by the author who went on to write the tale of Dylan and Baez’s early days, Positively 4th Street.  Out of all the music bios I’ve ever read, this one probably had the least in the way of lurid, low-life livin’, because its subject was such a nice, gentle, and much-loved guy.

Favorite Song: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing”— Ellington’s trusty muse Billy Strayhorn wrote several of the most gorgeous songs of all time, including this one.  Any version that features Johnny Hodges, such as the one on Caravan by the Johnny Hodges All-Stars, is divine.  Or try the version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Shakey by Jimmy McDonough (2002)–Here’s everything you always wanted to know about Neil Young.  OK, so maybe you really didn’t care to know anything about him.  The book was written by a cohort, often relating first-hand accounts.  A scene about recording On the Beach in a pitch-dark studio with a tripping Rusty Kershaw is a high point, so to speak.

Favorite Song: “Pocahontas”— Of the many Neil Young songs I revere, this one, from Rust Never Sleeps, is the one that always gets to me.

Hellfire by Nick Tosches (1982)–Here’s one with a wild and irreverent subject (Jerry Lee Lewis, with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart in a supporting—if not supportive—role), told by a wild and irreverent writer.

Favorite Song: “Breathless”— The Killer’s third hit is another sentimental favorite—one of the first 45s I owned.  It sounded superb on my little portable record player, but it sounds pretty good on an MP3 player, too.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)–I have several bios of my main music hero, and couldn’t decide which was best, until this comprehensive and sensitive page-turner came along.  Nothing else needed.

Favorite Song: “Locomotive”— Monk’s my song god, so it’s so hard to choose.  But the single recording I’ve listened to more than any other is this one, from the 1967 album Straight, No Chaser.

The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White (1994)–This is my favorite version of the story of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson’s wanderings, and his place in sixties West-Coast pop culture.

Favorite Song: “Wonderful”– Every version I’ve heard of this strange Brian Wilson song is mysterious and beautiful, but I’m currently most thrilled by the version on the soundtrack album for the documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie (1943)–The down-home autobiography of the All-American rabble-rousing troubadour is a classic.  Read it aloud with a Okie twang for best effect.

Favorite Song: “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”— Billy Bragg and Wilco set some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music for the album Mermaid Avenue in 1998.  This one was Bragg’s and he did Woody proud.

Here’s a playlist to give you inspiration as you read:

http://grooveshark.com/widget.swf

— Steve L., aka The Buy Guy