At one point, the brilliance of the Beach Boys seemed to have no top.
Principal architect Brian Wilson and a group of family and friends moved from strength to strength, releasing 1964’s “I Get Around” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” then 1965’s “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls” followed by 1966’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows.” Everything came crashing to a halt after the release of Pet Sounds on May 16, 1966.
A follow-up album didn’t arrive until September of the following year, with a historic stand-alone single they’d already been working on as the lone stopgap. Wilson was stuck in a spiral of perfectionism that ultimately led to the shelving of an album he’d intended to call SMiLE. The rest of the band reunited to cobble together a half-measure version of the album, somewhat confusingly titled Smiley Smile, but Wilson was only an occasional presence in the studio going forward.
The story, however, doesn’t end there. The Beach Boys continued grasping for greatness, even if it became much harder to firmly hold. While never again the cultural force they’d once been, they managed some notable successes in the years after their biggest album.
Here’s a look back at the Top 10 Post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys Songs, spanning the immediate period that followed into the ’70s then through to a remarkable comeback that was decades in the making.
10. “Aren’t You Glad”
From: Wild Honey (1967)
After struggling so mightily to squeeze something usable from the crash-landed SMiLE sessions, the Beach Boys returned with a streamlined sense of purpose on Wild Honey – an attitude embodied by this song. “It was just an album for us to exhale and do something real simple,” Bruce Johnston said in the liner notes for the 2017 box set 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow. Of course, songs composed by Brian Wilson and Mike Love will never actually go unembellished. So “Aren’t You Glad” girds its Lovin’ Spoonful brand of sun-splashed ardor with these instantly nostalgic Burt Bacharach-style horns. “As it’s Brian and Mike’s music,” Johnston admitted, “it’s still fabulous – and not so simple.”
9. “Baby Blue”
From: L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
Something interesting happened as Brian lost his way: the unforeseen emergence of his brother Dennis Wilson. He placed several songs, including the terrific “Forever,” on 1970’s Sunflower. There were two more on Carl and the Passions: So Tough from 1972. L.A. (Light Album) then built on momentum created from Wilson’s 1977 debut, Pacific Ocean Blue – a subtly conveyed cult classic. He’d begun work on both “Baby Blue” and “Love Surrounds Me” while trying to construct a second solo album. Dennis initially kept his focus there, barely participating in the group’s patched-together next LP, but tragically drowned before finishing. “I just think that given time, he would’ve been probably the best composer in the band – outside of Brian, of course,” Al Jardine later lamented. “He just had that natural, intuitive instinct about music and lyrics.”
8. “All I Wanna Do”
From: Sunflower (1970)
Some of the best post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys Songs sound nothing like, you know, the Beach Boys. “All I Wanna Do” is one of them, as producer Carl Wilson adds layered delay effects to an almost ghostly Love-Wilson composition until everything starts sounding like a prehistoric dream-pop song. They worked on it forever, trying out “All I Wanna Do” while recording both 1968’s Friends and 1969’s 20/20. Along the way, Carl contributed an electric sitar, the Rocksichord and, of course, 12-string guitar; the intricate arrangement is actually built on top of a cadence from a piccolo snare drum. Still, Brian apparently never liked the way things turned out, later saying “it had a nice chord pattern” but “wasn’t done right.” Scores of as-yet-unborn bedroom-recording chillwave kids would one day beg to differ.
7. “Leaving This Town”
From: Holland (1973)
The prog-ish “Leaving This Town” – like “Sail On, Sailor,” found later on our list of Top 10 Post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys Songs – was recorded back in Los Angeles after the Beach Boys left a makeshift studio in Holland which gave this LP its name. Wait, prog Beach Boys? Yes, prog Beach Boys. Co-written with brief-but-critically important members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, “Leaving This Town” starts out in an ordinary enough fashion. Chaplin guides the heartbroken lyric over a solitary piano figure, while co-writers Carl Wilson and Mike Love occasionally buttress things with the expected celestial background vocals. Then, at around the 2:30 mark, it’s like Keith Emerson wandered in. Fataar actually switched from drums to the Moog, but the effect takes the song’s innate sadness to a kaleidoscopically poignant place.
From: Sunflower (1970)
Dennis Wilson was the George Harrison of the Beach Boys, and not just because he was a sensitive and overlooked younger member. His music could be similarly angular and brooding, with an edge missing from the larger band’s core sound. His creative breakthrough was also achieved by writing a gorgeous love song. But even here, Wilson is as far away from “Fun, Fun, Fun” as he could possibly be, seemingly trembling in fear of abandonment. Moving forward, no one doubted Dennis any longer, even his universally celebrated elder sibling. “‘Forever’ has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” Brian said in the liner notes to a subsequent Sunflower reissue. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll prayer.”
5. “Summer’s Gone”
From: That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012)
This unexpected reunion featuring founders Jardine, Love and Brian Wilson, along with legacy members David Marks and Bruce Johnston, got unquestionably stronger as it played. The peak arrives during a final sequence that starts with the delightful “Strange World,” moves forward through the Jardine-led “From There to Back Again” and afternoon shadows of “Pacific Coast Highway,” before concluding amidst the twilit poignancy of “Summer’s Gone.” Here, Wilson faced squarely the idea that things come to an end, even their mythical time in the sun. In so doing, he helped the band reclaim not just their sound, but their emotional center. No small thing, after the personal struggles that Brian endured and the bad feelings that once tore these survivors to shreds. (Just ignore the fact that they proceeded to screw it up again in real life.)
4. “Heroes and Villains”
From: Smiley Smile (1967)
Brian starts fast, singing Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics with a gangly, straight-ahead joy that belies how many twists and turns they’re both about to take us through. Wilson entered the SMiLE period working in a more episodic fashion, as he tried to stitch together disparate ideas he called “modules” into larger pocket symphonies. “Heroes and Villains” became one of the most successful iterations, but it took a while. He’d spent some six months – an extraordinary amount of time back then – completing “Good Vibrations,” which employed an embryonic version of this composing style. He spent about twice that long with “Heroes and Villains,” in an evolution that ended up taking over an entire disc on 2011’s SMiLE Sessions box set. Little surprise then that his results lack the linear structure that made “Good Vibrations” into a much, much bigger hit. Still, there’s fizzy excitement as a genius teases out a completely new song structure, right in front of your ears.
3. “Sail On, Sailor”
From: Holland (1973)
When Warner Bros. rejected the group’s first pass at Holland, they went back to the drawing board in L.A. Luckily, Parks remembered this unfinished Brian Wilson song; he added a middle eight while Jack Rieley did a last-minute lyrical rewrite. All that was left to do was the hand the mic over to Blondie Chaplin for his greatest-ever Beach Boys moment. They released it twice, however, and this soulful, yearning groover somehow barely cracked the Top 50. Chaplin was soon out of the band, too. It’s a shame. “Sail On, Sailor” remains the best example of how the Beach Boys’ elemental style could be stretched and reformed, and how it might have kept growing. Instead, Chaplin went on to collaborate with the Band, Gene Clark of Byrds fame, and the Rolling Stones – while the Beach Boys settled into a lengthy tenure as a jukebox band.
2. “Surf’s Up”
From: Surf’s Up (1971)
“Surf’s Up,” indeed. By this point, most of the best elements of their shelved SMiLE had found a home on albums like the half-measure replacement Smiley Smile and 1969’s 20/20. The only major remnant became this album’s closing-track farewell to everything that made the Beach Boys into ’60s-era beach-blanket icons. Credit Carl, who pieced together remaining demo-level pieces from Brian, added a touching new vocal, then reworked a refrain from another leftover SMiLE fragment called “Child is Father of the Man” into a soaring coda. As with “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up” begins as if already in motion, but then unfolds in a series of far subtler shifts in time and space. There’s a stately delicacy absent from “Heroes and Villains,” which no doubt kept “Surf’s Up” from ascending the pop charts. But that’s its quiet strength.
1. “Good Vibrations”
From: Smiley Smile (1967)
Begun during Pet Sounds, then completed as the Beach Boys shifted focus to SMiLE, “Good Vibrations” is the pinnacle of their considerable discography – and the pin being pulled on the grenade that was Brian Wilson’s muse. Its dizzying success became the larger project’s downfall, and then Brian’s. In this moment, however, everything in his head – theories and sounds that went beyond contemporary imagination – found a home on vinyl. First, however, there was a trick: Brian begins with the typical verse-chorus-verse before first introducing the mini-movements he dubbed modules. Lots of musical things (including harpsichord, cellos and the electro-theremin) start happening, evidence of Brian’s making-it-up-as-he-went-along approach. But everything snaps back in place, almost like musical Lego pieces, when that transcendent chorus returns.