The Beach Boys’ 40 greatest songs – ranked!

You have to tread carefully when it comes to the Beach Boys’ late-70s albums: patchy is putting it mildly. But Baby Blue – a refugee from Dennis Wilson’s unfinished second solo album, Bamboo, parachuted on to the largely awful LA (Light Album) – is fantastic: broos, ethereal, alternately romantic and pained.

An overlooked anomaly amid the Surfin’ USA album’s twangy instrumentals and paeans to catching a wave, The Lonely Sea is slow, shimmering and eerie. It makes the sea sound faintly sinister – a reminder of life’s transience – rather than a source of fun, its dreamy ache a sign of where Brian Wilson was headed.

Bruce Johnston’s songwriting could tend to schmaltz: see the ghastly Deirdre, from Sunflower. But the gentle, descending melody on his contribution to Surf’s Up – an evocation of 50s America that couldn’t have been less fashionable in 1971, decorated with wah-wah guitar or not – is disarmingly charming.

LSD didn’t make Brian Wilson relax and float downstream: it scared the shit out of him. You can hear the fear in Smile’s supine, compelling but distinctly creepy Wind Chimes. It’s creepier and more compelling still in the ragged re-recording on Smiley Smile, and nothing like anything else the Beach Boys recorded.

Brian and brother Carl had a row in the studio over Brian’s insistence that Little Honda needed a distorted guitar. Brian won, and the result was as close as the Beach Boys came to garage-rock toughness: nothing to scare the Shadows of Knight, but its vague hint of pounding aggression is really thrilling.

The Beach Boys seldom rocked out convincingly – it just wasn’t their forte – which makes It’s About Time, a collaborative effort involving Dennis and Carl Wilson and Al Jardine, a truly rare pleasure: Dennis’s vocal is raw and powerful, the guitar solo stings, the Santana-inspired Latin percussion rattles along.

He’s an understandably controversial figure among Beach Boys fans, but Mike Love nevertheless makes Be True to Your School as exciting as it is: his lyrics are weirdly belligerent, and he sings them with a punkish snarl at odds with its perky cheerleader chants and ra-ra backing vocals, as if intent on provoking a punch-up rather than lauding his alma mater.

Wendy was intended as a homage to the Beach Boys’ east coast competitors the Four Seasons: you can definitely hear the influence of their then-current hit single Ronnie, particularly in its intro. But the Four Seasons’ overcast Newark toughness is replaced by dreamy melancholy that feels sunlit even as it ponders a future that looks “awful dim”.

The overlooked Carl and the Passions – So Tough feels distantly related to 1965’s Beach Boys Today! Both albums feature a second side consumed by ballads, but here they’re darker, wearier, the sound of a band horribly bruised by the excesses of the late 60s. The highpoint is the wonderful Cuddle Up: Dennis in gorgeous battered romantic mode.

For a man supposedly hopelessly square – his LA hipster friends tended to snigger behind his back at his terrible taste – Brian was a serious risk-taker: Help Me, Rhonda’s original version spends its final minute inexplicably fading in and out. Even without that coda, the single version is great: the lyrical misery at odds with the melody.

That’s Why God Made the Radio is deeply uneven, but the final track on what’s likely to be the final Beach Boys album is a perfect way of bidding farewell. Based around a keyboard figure that recalls the intro to California Girls, it repurposes Brian’s trademark melancholy.

The tune is one of Brian’s more simplistic, and the lyrics are effectively someone wanging on about their car like a bore in the pub on a Sunday lunchtime – you get everything from the clutch to its registration documents. The end result is 1:44 of life-affirming joy, such were the Beach Boys’ mysterious alchemical powers in 1963.

20:20, released in 1969, variously featured old outtakes, covers, a recording of Dennis having sex and – uh-oh – the songwriting talents of Charles Manson. Among the former category lurked Time to Get Alone: a Brian song longing for escape, “safe from the people”, airily delightful, blessed with a heavenly sigh of a chorus.

Dennis emerged as a major songwriting force with Sunflower’s Vir altyd, but 4th of July is even better: an epic, deeply troubled meditation on Vietnam utterly at odds with the Beach Boys’ old image as America’s Band. “Band politics” got it elbowed from Surf’s Up – it remained unreleased until 1993.

It says something about the company it kept that Dance, Dance, Dance feels undervalued among the Beach Boys’ run of classic singles. Carl’s riff is great, its 12-string guitar and frantic solo bear the influence of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, but the sudden key change midway through the third verse is pure Brian.

Its writing apparently fuelled by the assassination of President John F Kennedy, The Warmth of the Sun is extraordinarily luscious and incredibly sad. It’s also a perfect example of the subtly increasing richness of Brian’s writing: no one else in pop in 1964 was writing chord sequences and melodies like this.

The Beach Boys were in trouble by the time of Wild Honey’s December 1967 vrylating: Brian’s mental health had collapsed, tastemakers were deriding them as unhip. You wouldn’t know from Darlin’, a heart-swelling triumph with a great Carl vocal: in its own way, its pared-back R&B-infused sound fitted the rootsy post-psychedelic mood.

The most angelically voiced Beach Boy of all, Carl was a late developing, sporadic and patchy songwriter, but Feel Flows was a total delight, a hazily psychedelic take on laid-back 70s west coast rock with a fantastic, surprisingly stinging guitar solo. Its use in Almost Famous deservedly brought it to a wider audience.

Legend has it that Brian wrote This Whole World while “stoned and confused”, which seems remarkable given the song’s plethora of changes and its mood of spiralling elation. Its a cappella coda – Carl’s falsetto soaring over a wall of backing vocals – is as spine-tingling as anything in the Beach Boys’ catalogue.

Pet Sounds is so consistently fantastic that picking its highlights swiftly becomes about personal preference. Is I’m Waiting For the Day “better” than I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times or Here Today? Not really, but the point at 0:52 when the drums kick in might be the album’s most exciting, exuberant moment.

A wonderful song and another signpost to Pet Sounds that stirs the influence of Burt Bacharach into a saga of heartbreak and optimism. The writing and arrangements are ever-more ornate, but the real genius of Brian might not be all the musical twists and turns but how effortless the finished product feels.

The demo of Sail On Sailor features Brian pleading with co-writer Van Dyke Parks to “convince me that I’m not insane”. That such an optimistic, joy-bringing song came out of such turmoil seems almost beyond belief: the lyrics might feel like Parks’s message to his troubled partner, but Brian’s strident, punchy music matches it.

Fun, Fun, Fun must have sounded like a description of another planet in early 60s Britain: a world of drive-in restaurants and unimaginable plenty, where a teenager could take possession of a Ford Thunderbird. No wonder it sounded so exuberant, from its Chuck Berry guitar intro to its final, life-affirming explosion of harmonies.

Invariably overshadowed by its successor Surf’s Up, Sunflower is the real jewel in the Beach Boys’ 70s catalogue: more of a band effort than Pet Sounds, packed with amazing songs, not least All I Wanna Do, a blissful, reverb-drenched dream that some have claimed as a precursor to chillwave. A little bafflingly, Brian later called it “boring”.

One of the fastest learners in pop, Brian described 1962’s Surfin’ Safari as merely “a rehearsal”. The qualitative leap on the Chuck Berry-indebted Surfin’ USA – released a mere five months later – feels mind-blowing. It’s tighter, smoother, shinier, more exciting: a song entirely of its moment, but so infectiously gleeful as to defy time.

The projected follow-up to Good Vibrations pushed Brian’s fragmentary writing technique to its limit. Disjointed in a way its predecessor simply wasn’t, it’s still an incredible achievement, unlike anything else in pop then or now. What audiences in 1967 would have made of the five-minute version, belatedly released in 2011, is anyone’s guess.

Hymning the early 60s before the 60s were over, Do It Again helped usher in a retrospective mood in US pop culture, harking back to a mythic prelapsarian era just as American Graffiti and Don McLean’s American Pie would subsequently do. It’s also a fantastic song: the lead vocal-free middle section is particularly thrilling.

The greatest and most moving of the Beach Boys’ initial ventures into introspection. With its worries, fears and crying in the dark, In My Room seems astonishingly vulnerable for a male pop band in 1963: an early sign that all was not as it seemed behind the sunny California facade.

Spare a thought for Love, the naysaying villain in the saga of Smile going unfinished: who wouldn’t be a little shocked by Cabinessence? But if you’re not a 60s pop star looking for a hit, it sounds glorious and ambitious: drawing on folk music, cowboy songs and Aaron Copland, alternately funny, touching and disturbing.

A strong candidate for the title of the most beautiful song the Beach Boys ever recorded, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’s sumptuous, string-laden yearning stands out even on Pet Sounds. Analyse its harmonic complexities, diminished chords and passing tones if you want: however Brian did it, it’s impossible not to succumb to.

Side two of Beach Boys Today! offered a succession of dazzling, plush ballads that bore testament to Brian’s increasing fondness for marijuana and acted as a dry run for Pet Sounds. Every one of them is amazing, but the subtly arranged, swooning beauty of Please Let Me Wonder is something else.

Perhaps the finest expression of swaggering youthful arrogance in pop history – “we’ve never missed yet with the girls we meet” – I Get Around manages to be impossibly pleased with itself and totally irresistible: the astonishing harmonies, Brian’s vaulting falsetto, the key change midway through, the fabulous pizzicato guitar on the verses.

net soos selfs Bono se hardste nee-sêer gedwing kan word om toe te gee dat hulle uniek vaardig is om stadions te speel, God Only Knows seems to have become the definitive Beach Boys song: you’re far more likely to hear it on the radio than I Get Around. Its resulting over-familiarity notwithstanding, its plaintive loveliness – amplified by Carl’s vocal – can still take your breath away in an unguarded moment.

The contrasting personalities at the Beach Boys’ centre in one stunning pop package. Love’s lyrics pay swaggering tribute to the sun-kissed ladies of the band’s home state, equal parts lechery and we’re-the-best cheerleading. Brian’s astonishing instrumental introduction, egter, seems beamed from a very different world: reflective, autumnal, suffused with sadness.

Pet Sounds’ clarion call features Brian throwing everything at the wall – tempo shifts, risky key changes (the first arrives six seconds in), instruments rendered unrecognisable by his studio techniques, harmonies so beautiful and tricky they reduced Carl to tears in the studio – and finding it all sticks: an incredible song.

One of the greatest B-sides ever released, Don’t Worry Baby has it all: an exquisite melody made more exquisite still by Brian’s tender vocal, a lush backdrop of harmonies, a moving lyric about teen romance and an ill-considered drag race that seems to reflect Brian’s own troubles and insecurities.

A stunning piece of songwriting – check out the extended alternative mix on 1998’s Endless Harmony – ’Til I Die is the most emotionally desolate song in the Beach Boys’ catalogue: a howl of resigned despair from a man in terrible distress. Its hopelessness is chilling, its sonic richness cosseting: an incredibly potent, unsettling combination.

Almost anything from Pet Sounds could hold this position in the chart, but for sheer emotional power, it’s hard to beat Caroline, No’s meditation on innocence lost, which could just as easily be about a child as an old flame. The music is sumptuously sad; the final, agonised note of Brian’s vocal heartbreaking.

The first time the public heard Surf’s Up, four years before it appeared on the eponymous album, it was being lavished with praise: “Too complex to get all of first time around … poetic, beautiful,” gushed the 1967 documentary Inside Pop, superlatives that horrified Brian. But it deserves them: elliptical, deeply haunting and elegiac, it seems to anticipate the waning of the 60s even at their height.

In the new documentary Long Promised Road, Don Was attempts to explain Brian’s production techniques by playing his old multi-tracks. It doesn’t work: “I don’t know how he did that,” shrugs Was, baffled. Good Vibrations is testament to those inexplicable powers. An act of unprecedented audacity, it was spliced together from fragments recorded in four different studios. But it doesn’t sound like an avant-garde experiment: it sounds like a breathtaking pop single, its endless shifts and changes coalescing into a perfectly formed, unbelievably thrilling whole. The greatest single ever? Maybe. The pinnacle of 60s pop’s invention and daring? Probably. The Beach Boys’ crowning achievement? Absolutely.

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