Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Beach Boys Album (Part 1)

by Brian Erickson

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

I was a fan of The Beach Boys before I was a fan of almost anything else from which I derive enjoyment in my life. But the band that most people know only existed for four years (1962-1966), making them one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented major acts of the rock and roll era. Unlike the Beatles, the Beach Boys never broke up. Unlike the Rolling Stones, their tours are not near-billion-dollar arena-packing ventures. Since they never stopped making records, this Discog Fever will span three parts: the 60s, 70s, and their later career (80s-10s). So come on a safari with me, friends; the water's fine!

Surfin' Safari (1962)


Songs about root beer, diminutive Native Americans, and the County Fair are all a bit sophomoric (don't try to redeem the 'waah-waah-waah' Indian sounds) on The Boys' debut platter. The album's stiff production (courtesy of Nik Venet, noted more for his work as a jazz vocal and folk producer) is rescued by the one-two whammy of "409" and - of course - the garage-y title track that launched the Boys' career in the first place.

Surfin' USA (1963)


The Boys returned a mere five months later with their second effort and it's quite the improvement. Leader Brian Wilson already started to exhibit more maturity in the studio. The album is weighed down by an overabundance of Dick Dale derived instrumentals, but they're of course redeemed by the magnificent, Chuck Berry-esque title track as well as "Shut Down" my personal favorite on the record (and a hint into the direction the band would soon take). But respectable cuts like "Farmer's Daughter" and "Lonely Sea" start to show fans that these young men might yet have a solid album in them.

Surfer Girl (1963)


Six months later and we got another incremental shift upward, this time courtesy of bandleader Brian Wilson taking the production reins. If the Beach Boys were treated the way EMI treated the Beatles, they'd have had one incredible album instead of three mediocre ones at this point in their career. The title track is stunning; the Beach Boys really knew their way around a ballad at this point, and even managed one better with the telling "In My Room." They dropped at least one great deep cut with "The Surfer Moon" and hit huge with B-sides turned radio staples, "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Catch a Wave," still one of their most exciting, unexpected melodies. But too many throwaway songs like "South Bay Surfer," "The Rocking Surfer," and "Surfer's Ride" prevent this album from being the artistic breakthrough that so many fans often want it to be. And as a result, it ends up a little overrated.

Little Deuce Coupe (1963)


The Beach Boys FOURTH album in one year's time is a big step back. Wilson & Co. deliver a concept album, collecting all of their car-related songs to capture the OTHER Southern California craze of the time. And it's exactly that: a collection of previously-released tracks alongside a batch of hastily-written new material. Thanks to lead singer Mike Love, "Be True To Your School" just won't die. He's a septuagenarian high school dropout singing about school spirit. I saw them in concert in 2012 and he goes, "Let's go UCLA."  What part of a college campus are you familiar with again, Mike? This is also the final album the band cut with 14 year old guitar virtuoso David Marks; an unfortunately sour note for him to go out on.

Shut Down Volume II (1964)


Here's where things start getting interesting. After five months went by, there was some REAL growth. Despite the "Be True to Your School" hiccup, the Brian Wilson/Mike Love co-writing partnership begins to solidify with songs like "Fun Fun Fun" and JFK tribute "Warmth of the Sun" (Wilson previously wrote songs with friend Gary Usher or local DJ Roger Christian). Album tracks like the imaginatively-structured "Pom Pom Playgirl," lush "Keep an Eye on Summer," and anthemic love song "Don't Worry Baby" allow this album to rise up above obvious filler like "Cassius Love vs Sonny Wilson." I don't care what you think. I like "Denny's Drums."

All Summer Long (1964)


More than an incremental step forward, the All Summer Long album was by far the best Brian Wilson production yet to this point. Ditching intra-band instrumentation for LA's famed Wrecking Crew of session musicians, Wilson clearly had something up his sleeve and couldn't keep it there any longer. "I Get Around" shot straight past the Beatles on its way to #1, something that was not lost on the Fabs, as Wilson knew the Brits were starting to invade on the chart turf that - for the previous two years - was all his. But he brought quite a few bullets to the battle and fired them at will. The nostalgic title track, a throwback like "Little Honda" and one of the band's best, most sophisticated ballads, "Wendy," ensured commercial success while an increasing number of quality non-single tracks like "Don't Back Down," "Girls on the Beach," and the girl group-inspired "We'll Run Away" made the critics start paying attention, as well.

Beach Boys Concert (1964)


The album that hit #1 and lived at the top of the charts for four weeks couldn't be a more ragged affair. Live recordings in 1964 were primitive at best and this disc is no different. Of course Brian Wilson thought nothing of going back in and sweetening the instrumentation in the studio so that they could be heard over the deafening screams of the teenage audience. Heavy on covers, Concert captures a snapshot of The Beach Boys at their commercial peak, just before things started to truly get heavy. Dennis' reading of Dion's "The Wanderer" is worth the price of admission and Mike's intro to "Little Deuce Coupe" distills the band's creative process pretty nicely.

Christmas Album (1964)


A brief but necessary detour for many bands in the mid 60s: the obligatory Christmas recording. But this might be the best rock and roll Christmas album this side of Phil Spector. It yielded at least one all-time original with, "Little Saint Nick," and added another perennial favorite with the Al Jardine-sung "Christmas Day." The second-half standards can be a bit scmaltzily-orchestrated, but "I'll Be Home for Christmas" still strikes that perfect chord between joy and melancholy. And damn if it might not be the group's finest vocal work on record to this point. That wall of harmonies has to be heard to be believed!

Today! (1965)


The Beatles released Help! so the Beach Boys - now officially considered competitors of near-equal stature by the Fabs themselves - needed to answer with their own exclamation-pointed album. And it matches the moptops nearly punch-for-punch. Drummer Dennis Wilson gets his first major vocal with opener "Do You Wanna Dance," and Love follows the hit parade with the similarly-titled "Dance Dance Dance." But don't let the names fool you; each song has its own strength, character, and kinetic energy. The centerpiece of the  album is the sophisticated, harpsichord-driven, "When I Grow Up to Be a Man," a song that predates Sgt. Pepper's themes of proper adulthood (see: "She's Leaving Home" or the maudlin "When I'm 64") by two whole years. Non-singles like "Good to My Baby" and "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" would be the best songs on anything pre-1964, and that says nothing of the five ballads that occupy the second side - each one better than the next (save, maybe "Kiss Me Baby," which I've never been huge on). "In the Back of My Mind" gives us brother Dennis closing out the record, leaving us wondering what the heck just happened. The Beach Boys - after seven albums - finally arrived, that's what!

BONUS: If you're like me and first experienced this album on CD back in the 90s, then you had the added pleasure of having heard non-album track "Little Girl I Once Knew," which is as strong as anything on the album and one of Brian Wilson's most adventurous productions.

Summer Days (And Summer Nights) (1965)


The band's second album of 1965 finds them in a bit of a holding pattern, but when you're "stuck" producing some of the most exciting music of your whole career, what does it really matter? Bluesy opener "The Girl from NYC" gives us a hint of what we're about to get hit with. While I could do without "Amusement Parks USA," as it hues a little too close to oldie "Palisades Park" for my taste, it's not without its charms. That weak spot aside, this album is non-stop awesome! From the Spector homage of "Then I Kissed Her" to the driving harmonies of "Salt Lake City," this shapes up to be a record of supremely varied sound and sophistication. "Girl Don't Tell Me" again matches the Beatles punch-for-punch and introduces us to brother Carl Wilson as an important and expressive lead vocal contributor. We open up the second half of the album with another #1 hit single, "Help Me Rhonda," sung by Jardine, then follow it up with arguably the band's signature song, the Mike Love-driven "California Girls" (which features then-new member Bruce Johnston on the final vocal round). Much has been said about the song's classical-sounding introduction, so I'll leave that to the proper critics, but to my ears, this might be the best one-two track placement on any album ever. And then the Boys keep it up by giving us one of their most respected songs, "Let Him Run Wild," with its jazzy breakdown, previewing even further compositional maturity on the part of Brian Wilson. The sole instance where this album truly falters is on blatant end-of-the-record filler track "I'm Bugged at My Old Man," an indictment against Wilson father/band manager Murry Wilson who had recently been fired. But Summer Days might just be the band's best all-around album. It captures and distills the fun essence of their past almost perfectly while pointing to the musical and lyrical maturity that is about to crest over them. This is the one I go back to the most because "Bugged" aside, it's the most balanced.

Party (1965)


Before we make art, there's always that pesky order of commerce that we must attend to. After all, how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat? Capitol needed a record in time for Christmas. The band had given them a proper Christmas album just a year ago, so in lieu of Christmas Vol II (which - ugh - they tried in the 70s...more on that later), Wilson decided to (perhaps unwittingly) break new ground: the band would make an "unplugged" album, something that no one had previously attempted - or a least no one as prominent as The Beach Boys. Wilson got the band in the room with acoustic guitars for a couple nights and cut the record in very loose, impromptu fashion. But like most Wilson productions during this time, every sound was deliberate. After they were satisfied with the mix, the group invited friends, wives, and girlfriends into the studio and pressed "record" again. The Party album was born. What was meant to be a throwaway (no new originals grace this set) instead gives us poignant readings of Dylan, the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, and "Barbara Ann," the unexpected #2 hit single that would become one of the band's most identifiable songs. While the grade might suggest it's a low-point during the band's creative peak, I promise it's not. It's just one hell of a fun diversion.

Pet Sounds (1966)


While Brian Wilson and the band had been readying us for this since All Summer Long, nothing could really have prepared the record-buying public for the artistic tsunami of Pet Sounds. Released on the same day as Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, this album has stood among, not just Beach Boys albums, but all music as perhaps THE great standard-bearer. It put the entire world on notice and vaulted the Beach Boys to a new level of respect among critics as well as their peers. The deeper lyrical content (courtesy of ad publicist Tony Asher) and stunning, classically-influenced musical structure (courtesy of Wilson) had never been attempted in pop music before, even during a time when studio innovation was almost expected with every new album release by any major band. Pet Sounds continued to change the conversation as it directly inspired The Beatles to attempt to better it with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a contest that perhaps won them the timely battle but ultimately lost them the all-time war. While Pepper may have defined its own time and put Wilson to bed for a while, Pet Sounds survived. It grew and matured and continued to find new generations of fans and imitators. Wilson still tours the whole album live occasionally, a testament to its staying power. Paul McCartney calls it his favorite album of all time and is said to have been reduced to tears upon hearing it. Songs like, "God Only Knows" stand at the very top of the mountain alongside "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Rhapsody In Blue" as one of the four or five greatest songs ever written. Pet Sounds doesn't matter as much as it did back in 1966. It matters more.

Smiley Smile (1967)


...and then comes the fallout. After Brian Wilson completed 'Pet Sounds,' it was a relative commercial failure, barely scraping the Top 10. Capitol - sensing a reversal of commercial fortunes - hastily released a 'Greatest Hits' album, a move that, in 1967, signaled the end of a career. And had their career truly ended right then and there, the Beach Boys would still be regarded as one of the greatest, most adventurous, innovative groups of all time. But they weren't done. First came the Wilson/Love collaboration "Good Vibrations," a song whose importance simply cannot be overstated. It launched the group back into the ionosphere, straight to #1 and stayed there a staggering 22 weeks. But the song's parent album, SMiLE, stalled out during the recording sessions. So after almost an entire year without a new album, the Boys recorded this stoned retreat instead. Modest, charming, slightly funny, often awkward, Smiley Smile has grown in stature over the years, suggesting more unwitting Wilson innovation - a step back into a more simple, organic record-making process that would be perfected the White AlbumJohn Wesley Harding, and Music From Big Pink. As for Smiley Smile's musical content, Carl Wilson called it "a bunt instead of a home run," due at least in part because Brian had stopped taking sole production credit, leaving the other, less-experienced band members holding the proverbial production bag. As such, The Beach Boys would never quite be the same again and - even though the album has held up - the fact that the band was no longer swinging for the fences makes this album a disappointment no matter how you slice it.

Wild Honey (1967)


The Beach Boys made their money and image on the backs of their Vanilla-white harmonies and malt shop grooves. So when they dropped this blue-eyed soul album, their fans were justified in their collective confusion. They returned to 1963 (?) form, largely supplying their own instrumentation for the first time in four years. The lyrical content also returns to lighter fare. Commercially, the album yielded a Top 20 evergreen with the Carl Wilson-sung "Darlin," which is one of the group's rare post-"Good Vibrations" hits that still gets played on the radio. Elsewhere, opener "Wild Honey" and atmospheric "Let the Wind Blow" keep this album from landing with a thud. But for the second album in a row, the Beach Boys under-deliver when compared to the heights they reached just a year prior.

Friends (1968)


Perhaps the most misunderstood album in the group's entire catalogue, Friends foregoes the honky soul rave-ups of the previous album and the stoned musings of Smiley Smile to give us the group's most cohesive record since Pet Sounds. Recorded largely without lead singer Mike Love (who was off to India on a spiritual sojourn), Friends is a quietly dignified album that accomplishes its uncomplicated goal: offering people a quiet, contemplative musing on age and friendship. Production starts to beef itself back up with horns and strings taking on a still-subtle but more prominent role than they had on the last two albums. Meanwhile, Dennis Wilson emerges as a fine songwriter with two original compositions, "Little Bird" and "Be Still," both of which are highlights while Brian's humorous "Busy Doin' Nothing" offers us an unfortunate glimpse into what largely lay ahead for him. Unfortunately, at the height of America's political unrest, people didn't have time for Friends and, as such, the album was a commercial disaster.

Stack-O-Tracks (1968)


While it's fun to listen to Brian Wilson's immaculate production work sans vocals, this glorified karaoke album reeks of record label contract fodder. The music is fantastic, don't get me wrong, but I'm just not sure whom this album is aimed at. Two years removed from their last major hit and following up their least-successful album, Stack-O-Tracks finds Capitol Records literally heaving spaghetti at the wall to see what might stick.

20/20 (1969)


The band's final studio album for Capitol is a mixed bag of singles and leftovers that holds up unusually well. Mike Love marks his return with the throwback hit "Do It Again," which got the band back into the Top 20 for the first time in two long years. Meanwhile, Brian gives us the gorgeous "Time to Get Alone." Carl Wilson takes a turn producing "I Can Hear Music" and does a fine job doing so, foreshadowing his increased role as a bandleader in the coming decade. Elsewhere, Bruce Johnston gets his first writing credit as a Beach Boy with the saccharine instrumental "The Nearest Faraway Place," and Al Jardine contributes his update to the folk standard "Cotton Fields." Dennis shines yet again with the Charles Manson (!) co-write, "Never Learn Not to Love." But true Beach Boy historians know that the real draw of this album are the two SMiLE era outtakes "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence," oddly stapled to the end of the record. Like Friends, this album has aged remarkably well. but it's the divvied-up singing, writing, and production that the band would cling to most closely as they looked toward a new decade and - perhaps - a new artistic beginning.

Live in London (1970)


Unlike 1964's chart-topping Concert album, Live in London captures the band at an artistic and commercial crossroads. The UK remained Beach Boy territory, even as America was turning its back on them. As such, this performance (augmented by a sensational horn section) brings to life many of their more recent, lesser-known songs like "Wake the World" and the scorching "Bluebirds Over the Mountain, that the Brits still appreciated. Live Beach Boys from this period were known to get adventurous (there's a great video floating around of them covering "Rock n Roll Woman" circa 1969) and this set - while seemingly released as just another Capitol cash grab - actually gives fans a vital snapshot of a band in transition.

Continue reading Part 2.