In 1961, Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine came together to form the Beach Boys. Over the next two decades, they’d become one of the most influential and innovative bands in modern history. With their early focus on surfing, cars, and romance, they pioneered “California Sound.” When they swapped teenage dreams for adult realities, their innovative recording techniques and ambitious orchestrations turned them from wholesome surfers into the US’s answer to the Beatles. It ended tragically: Brian’s mental health struggles drove a wedge between him and the band, Dennis’ alcoholism drove him to an early grave, and the band was eventually consigned to an oldies act. But what they became doesn’t detract from what they were, and what they were phenomenal. Here are the 10 greatest Beach Boys albums of all time.
10. Wild Honey
Released just two months after Smiley Smile, the cobbled-together album of outtakes from the aborted Smile album, Wild Honey was a homespun, bewildering affair that confused fans and left critics scratching their heads. It was a world away from the sheeny-shiny sounds of Pet Sounds, with a rough readiness that had all the gloss of sandpaper. But while it flopped commercially, it’s still a thrilling addition to their ’60s psychedelic era, with some dazzling little gems in the shape of the Motown-inspired Darlin’ and the low-fi Let the Wind Blow.
9. Love You
1977’s Love You is all about Brian Wilson. After years in the wilderness, Brian was back in the studio, trim, fit, and with his addictions behind him. It wouldn’t last long, but before the relapse came Love You. Brian wrote it, produced it, and played almost every instrument himself. It’s less of a Beach Boys album than a solo album, but regardless, its simple, ebullient nature makes it worthy of a place on our list.
8. All Summer Long
Released in 1964, All Summer Long singled the end of the Beach Boys’ first phase. After this, the naive optimism and focus on surf, sand, and girls would make way for a new, more mature sound. Already, you can hear the ring of changes, with souped-up arrangements and expanded instrumentation. The blissful harmonies of the four-piece still take center stage though, particularly on highlights like We’ll Run Away and I Get Around.
Brian Wilson took a backseat on Holland. Whether that was why Carl Wilson and Mike Love shone more brightly than usual, who knows? But shine they did, with new additions Blondie Chapin and Ricky Fataar adding some pretty stellar contributions of their own. The entire album was recorded in the Netherlands at the behest of the band’s manager, who felt that a change of scenery might shake Brian out of his creative funk. It didn’t, but with Carl and Mike performing so astonishingly on tracks like The Trader and California Saga, it barely mattered.
6. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)
By 1965, the British Invasion was well underway. Cocky UK garage bands were dominating the US charts, and the Beach Boys, for one, were having none of it. They were particularly sick of playing second fiddle to the Beatles. Fortunately for listeners, the rivalry spurred Brian Wilson on as a songwriter, with the result that Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) showcases some of his most complex and impressive creations to that point, with key standouts including California Girls and Help Me Rhonda.
By 1970, the Beach Boys were 15 albums into the career and sinking further into the commercial abyss. They needed a hit, and they needed one now. They didn’t get one, not with Sunflower at least, which peaked at a disappointing No. 151 on US record charts – their lowest-charting album to that point. Still, the reviews were favorable, and the album itself is a slow-burning charmer, with a peppering of truly exceptional tracks like the sublime Forever and the quintessential Beach Boys gem, Slip On Through.
4. The Beach Boys Today!
As soon as Murray Wilson decided to stop being Brian’s manager and go back to being his dad, Brian spread his wings and soared. He stopped touring (although in fairness to Murray, that had more to do with a nervous breakdown than any father-son problems) and hit the studio, a decision that allowed him to push beyond the limitations of the four-piece and start upping the ante with additional instrumentation and session musicians. On The Beach Boys Today!, it all comes together to create one of the band’s most approachable and radio-friendly albums ever.
3. Surf’s Up
By the 1970s, the Beach Boys were a world away from the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Californian boys of the early ’60s. Brian’s mental health struggles were weighing heavy, Dennis was still recovering from his ill-advised and short-lived friendship with Charles Manson, and the rest of the band were wading knee-deep in the counterculture. Surf’s Up may share the same bright and breezy title of the band’s earlier albums, but the wholesome sounds of their youth are nowhere to be seen… and that’s by no means a bad thing. Brian’s hymnal reflection on his mental health on Till I Die ranks among his most poignant and personal creations, while Bruce Johnston’s Disney Girls is nostalgic gold.
2. The Smile Sessions
Smile was meant to be the Beach Boys’ answer to Sgt. Pepper. In the end, it got abandoned, then stripped of its essential parts for albums like Smiley Smile. But Brian Wilson never gave up on it. In 2004, he released it as a solo album and scoped a Grammy for his efforts. Seven years later, Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions under the Beach Boys’ name. The result, as Wikipedia explains, is a comprehensive, 19 track tour de force that represents a hypothetical version of the completed Smile album. It may have taken over 40 years to hit the shelves, but with highlights like Good Vibrations, Heroes And Villains, and Cabin Essence peppered liberally throughout, it was worth the wait.
1. Pet Sounds
According to Louder Sound, an embittered Mike Love once called Pet Sounds “Brian’s ego music.” He might have been right, but that doesn’t detract from its greatness. The pinnacle of the band’s adventures in psych-pop, there’s very little that can be said about it that hasn’t already been said a million times. Suffice to say, it’s a masterpiece, and if you haven’t already listened to it, you’re missing out on one of the greatest and most influential albums of the last century.