The Beach Boys rode to fame on a wave of sun, surf, and teenage dreams. Their irresistible harmonies and evocative lyrics embodied the California Sound, and by the time they were in their early 20s, they were international superstars. And then along came Pet Sounds, an album that ditched the beach themes, ushered in a new era of artistic ingenuity, and secured their legacy as one of the most influential acts of the era. Here, we take a deep dive into their discography as we rank all 30 Beach Boys albums.
30. Summer in Paradise
Roundly criticized by sputnikmusic.com for its hollow production and painful lyrics, Summer in Paradise was almost doomed to fail. There’s no involvement from Brian Wilson, Mike Love raps, and there are more synths than there are good songs. Unless you have a penchant for terrible albums, avoid.
29. Stars and Stripes Vol. 1
As ultimateclassicrock.com points out, the best thing about Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 is that there was no Vol. 2. A messy collection of Beach Boys standards reworked as duets with various country stars, it’s the kind of album that even die-hard fans would struggle to find a kind word for.
28. Keepin’ the Summer Alive
By the time the Beach Boys came to record their 24th studio album, they were in bad shape. Brian Wilson was in no fit state to do much of anything, leaving Bruce Johnston to step into his shoes as producer. Dennis Wilson was AWOL for most of the album, making it into the studio for just one song. The song content is similarly weak, consisting of a cobbled-together mess of lackluster originals and leftovers from earlier sessions.
27. Still Cruisin’
Still Cruisin’ might not be the worst Beach Boys album in the world, but it’s also not one that many people would listen to of their own accord. Wisely, Capital decided to overlook it when they came to re-issue the rest of the band’s material in 2000.
26. 15 Big Ones
After releasing the weirdly wonderful Holland in 1973, the Beach Boys took a three-year break from the recording studio. When they finally returned, it was with 15 Big Ones, a bland, uninspired collection of covers designed to cater to an oldies audience. Even the few originals lack imagination.
25. M.I.U. Album
M.I.U. Album isn’t the worst album the Beach Boys ever made, but it’s still pretty terrible. Neither Carl nor Dennis Wilson contributes very much to proceedings, and Brian is clearly there in body only. Contrived and unfocused, it was, as All Music says, “a pathetic attempt at music-making” in comparison to what had come before.
24. Surfin’ Safari
The Beach Boys’ debut showed little signs of greatness. Both the title track and Surfin’ are decent songs, but the rest of the album is utterly forgettable. An album for the dedicated only.
23. The Beach Boys
The band’s self-titled 1985 album was produced by Steve Levine, a producer best known for his work with Culture Club. The first album to be released after the death of founding member Dennis Wilson, it’s very much a product of its time. The vocals are sublime, but the slick production and overblown arrangements drown them. Released in June 1985, it produced just one top 30 single and stalled at a displaying No. 52 on the Billboard 200.
22. L.A. (Light Album)
L.A. (Light Album) starts on a good note with the nostalgia-laced Good Timin’ but rapidly goes downhill from there. Critically, it was a flop, with Rolling Stone describing it as “worse than awful. It is irrelevant,” and All Music calling it “yet another oddball attempt to push the Beach Boys into the contemporary mainstream despite their many songwriting and production flaws.” It didn’t fare much better commercially, peaking at No. 100 on the Billboard 200.
21. Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”
By 1972’s Carl and the Passions – “So Tough,” Brian Wilson was a member of the band in name only, and his absence is palpable. It managed to climb to No. 50 on the Billboard 200 but neither of its two singles charted.
20. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album
The Beach Boys’ seventh album is a double LP containing a mixture of covers and original material, all based around a Christmas theme. It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but it fared well commercially, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 1964.
19. Little Deuce Coupe
Just one month after releasing their third album, the Beach Boys were back with Little Deuce Coupe. It was a rush job, and it sounds like it, with many of the tracks consisting of re-worked versions of songs that had appeared on their previous albums. Released in October 1963, it hung around the charts for 46 weeks, peaking at No. 4.
18. Shut Down Volume 2
By 1964, the British Invasion was underway and the pressure was on. The Beach Boys responded by releasing three albums over the course of 12 months. The first was Shut Down Volume 2. The creativity on some of the tracks is a big leap forward from their previous offerings, but overall, it’s mostly filler. A vital step in their move towards more artistic endeavors maybe, but not essential listening.
17. Surfer Girl
Surfer Girl produced some fun singles in the shape of Little Deuce Couple, In My Room, and the title track, but like much of the band’s early material, there’s too much studio chatter and not enough creativity. Released in September 1963, it peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200.
16. That’s Why God Made the Radio
In 2012, the Beach Boys marked their 50th anniversary with their first album of original material in 20 years, That’s Why God Made the Radio. The album also marked the return of early member David Marks, who’d last played with the band in 1963. Commercially, it was a major success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Critically, the reception was mixed, with The Guardian describing it as “the best thing Brian Wilson has put his name to in the last 30 years,” but others criticizing it for the surplus of ho-hum songs. A slick, but ultimately unremarkable, album.
Brian Wilson was absent for much of 20/20’s recording, having recently admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital. The result is an album that consists primarily of recordings from early sessions. It’s a messy affair, but there are just about enough good songs to keep it afloat. Released in February 1969, it was a hit in the UK, where it reached No. 3 on the albums chart, but only a minor success in the US, peaking at No. 68 on the Billboard 200.
14. Beach Boys’ Party!
Widely considered the first “unplugged” type album, Beach Boys’ Party! consists of a collection of acoustic covers from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, and several doo-wop groups, along with a smattering of re-recordings of earlier hits. Although the beach party atmosphere is representative of the band’s image at the time, the variety of musical influences on display hint at the change in direction they’d take on the following year’s Pet Sounds. Released as their third studio album of 1965, it peaked at No. 6 in the US and No. 3 in the UK.
On their 14th studio album Friends, the Beach Boys attempted to tap into the counterculture with a collection of songs inspired by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It received favorable reviews from the music press, but its simplicity and low-fi production failed to find favor with the public, resulting in the album stalling at No. 126 on the Billboard 200 – their lowest chart position to date.
12. Smiley Smile
After Brian Wilson’s Smile bit the dust, the band gathered the remnants and packaged them together in Smiley Smile. It was too weird to succeed, puzzling both critics and fans with its artistic eccentricities. But despite charting at a dismal No. 41 – the band’s lowest charting posting at that point – it’s since become one of their most respected albums, praised as one of the key influences on ambient music and bedroom pop.
11. Surfin’ U.S.A.
By 1963, Brian Wilson was starting to stretch his legs. On Surfin’ U.S.A., his desire to move the band towards new levels of artistic creativity is obvious. He may not have been giving credit as a producer, but his practice of doubletracking vocals is key to the album’s rich, full sound. Released in March 1963, it was a huge hit, charting at No. 2 in the US and eventually certifying gold.
10. The Beach Boys Love You
The Beach Boys Love You began life as a solo Brian Wilson project, and even though the band ended up contributing vocals, it still has the feel of one. Not only did he write most of the material, but he also played almost every instrument, including its trademark synthesizers. Released in April 1977, it was a commercial flop, peaking at a dismal No. 53 on the Billboard 200. In the years since, fans have come to reevaluate it, and it’s now rightly praised for its pioneering contributions to new wave and synth-pop.
9. All Summer Long
Culturesonar.com describes All Summer Long as the last great album of The Beach Boys’ first phase, showing a balance of naïve optimism and dynamic evolution. Wilson’s songwriting is infinitely more sophisticated than it had been on earlier albums, while the decision to expand their sound to include organs and xylophones was a wise one. Released in July 1963, it hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and earned the band a No. 1 single with I Get Around.
Considered by many to be the Beach Boys’ last great album, Holland may be a world away from the band’s early sound, but it’s none the worse for it. Ornate, stylish, and impressively forward-thinking, it’s home to a clutch of first-rate songs, including the magnificent The Trader and the Al Jardine’s and Mike Love’s three-part California Saga.
7. Wild Honey
After Smile crashed and burned, the Beach Boys returned in 1967 with Wild Honey, an album of R&B songs that gets a big helping hand from Stevie Wonder. Carl Wilson’s wonderful performance on the title track is sublime, but there’s really not a bad song to be found across the entire album. Sonically, it was far removed from the big rock trends of the day, with the result that it became the band’s worst-selling album at that point. In the years since, opinion has shifted, and in 2020, it was named to Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest albums of all time.
6. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)
The Beach Boys Today! might be one of the Beach Boys’ greatest ever achievements, but the record label didn’t much care for its artistic direction. To make amends, the group presented them with Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), a collection of easy listening songs about cars, girls, and surf. Thematically, it represented a return to business as usual. But listen closely, and you’ll hear Brian Wilson stretching his wings and preparing to fly.
Sunflower was released in 1970 to a dire reception. The album charted at No. 151 on the Billboard 200 – the group’s lowest charting position to that point – and only one of its singles managed to break into the Billboard 100. But despite the poor sales, it was (and is) a wonderful album, with Rolling Stone calling it “without doubt the best Beach Boys album in recent memory, a stylistically coherent tour de force,” and many comparing it favorably to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
4. The Smile Sessions
Following the major success of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson got to work on Smile. It was intended to be his masterpiece, but a combination of drugs and mental health problems led the project to be scrapped within the year. In 2011, it got a new lease of life in the shape of a five-box disc set. Long, challenging, and cumbersome it may be, but the signs of Wilson’s genius are stamped all over it. It may not be an easy listen, but it’s unquestionably a rewarding one.
3. Surf’s Up
By the turn of the 1970s, the Beach Boys were at risk of becoming an oldies band. Their last few albums had gone nowhere in the charts and their sound was far removed from the prevailing trends in music. But then, in 1971, they rebounded with Surf’s Up. Brian Wilson was barely involved, the songs were more topical than they’d ever been before, and Carl Wilson was promoted to the band’s official leader. The changes worked: the album climbed to No. 29 on the Billboard 200 (their highest charting LP of new material since 1967) and critics hailed it as a major return to form.
2. The Beach Boys Today!
In 1965, the Beach Boys dropped a big hint at what was just around the corner with The Beach Boys Today! Heavily influenced by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the album signaled a major departure from the band’s previous sound. Brian Wilson ditched the usual lyrics about cars, girls, and surf and got introspective, the sound got richer and fuller, and the instrumentation expanded to include timpani, harpsichord, vibraphone, and French horn. It’s widely considered a precursor to Pet Sounds, but even if that album hadn’t come along, it would still be an astonishing accomplishment in itself.
1. Pet Sounds
By 1966, Brian Wilson was done comprising. Spurred on by the Beatles’ experimental pop and inspired by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, he stopped worrying about what the record label considered commercial and let his creative urges loose. The result is one of the most beautifully conceived and gorgeously executed albums ever made. In the US, Pet Sounds received a lukewarm reception and barely made it into the top 10. But time was on its side; all these years later, it’s still considered one of the most influential albums in history.