So we come to the end of my epic Top 50 Beach Boys songs list. Will there be a predictable choice at number one? How many songs from Pet Sounds will be in the Top 10? Will Help Me Rhonda or Sloop John B be in there (erm, nope)? Has any band made ten better songs than these?
10 – In My Room
Given that Brian Wilson ended up spending years of his life confining himself to his room, this song soon took on extra depth. Even back then, with Brian just 21 years old, he was emotionally mature enough to write (with Gary Usher) a song as beautiful and heartfelt as this one, and he had exactly the band to record the vocals, because no-one could have made it sound as good as this.
9 – Surfer Girl
One day, the story goes, Brian Wilson was driving to a hot dog stand and came up with a melody inspired by When You Wish Upon A Star from Pinocchio. He went home and wrote the rest of it (including, unusually, the lyrics) himself. It’s safe to say that it’s a song that changed everything for him and his band, taking a surf song and turning it into a beautiful ballad with wonderful Beach Boy harmonies.
8 – California Girls
Not many other songs epitomise a place quite like this does for the state of California and its female inhabitants in particular. But while the lyrics are a bit naff, the song itself is the perfect example of how Brian was taking the trademark Beach Boys sound and adding layers of magic to it now that he had more time and a team as talented as the Wrecking Crew to help him work on it. The opening bars are totally iconic and rightly so.
7 – Til I Die
A solo trip to a hot dog stand inspired Surfer Girl, and another solo trip for Brian to the beach inspired this song almost a decade later. But it was a very different experience and led to a very different song, because he was in a very different place, feeling lost and depressed in the world and the sight of the sea made him feel insignificant. All of those feelings poured out into this bleak but incredibly moving and very personal classic from the Surf’s Up album.
6 – Caroline, No
Technically released as Brian’s first solo single, because he’s the only Beach Boy who appears on it, Caroline, No is the saddest song on Pet Sounds, which is saying something. From the opening line ‘Where did your long hair go?’ it’s a mournful ode to a relationship that has changed and been forever lost, and features some of Tony Asher’s best lyrics from the album. The flutes towards the end sum up just how far Brian had come from Surfin’, just five years earlier.
5 – The Warmth Of The Sun
It’s safe to say that I don’t hold Mike Love in massively high esteem as a songwriter, but The Warmth Of The Sun is his masterpiece. Obviously Brian’s beautiful melody makes it special, but Mike’s lyrics show a sensitivity that is mostly lacking from anything else he ever did. Written by the pair the morning after the assassination of JFK, the raw emotions they felt come through in the words and the music and it’s incredible. So any time I criticise Mike, I always try to remember when he got it so very right.
4 – Forever
Early on, Dennis Wilson’s contributions to the Beach Boys involved being the most attractive one for girls, being the only surfer in the group and playing the drums. He got to sing occasionally, mostly for the scream factor at live shows, but that was about it. By the early 70s, things had changed and he had developed as a singer and a songwriter and this is his finest hour and a perfect taster for what would follow on the wonderful Pacific Ocean Blue album. Lyrically and musically, it’s food for the soul and shows what a powerful artist Dennis was when he was focused, and makes you wish he’d been able to contribute more to the band. I’ve chosen the stunning a capella version below…
3 – Surf’s Up
Brian’s writing partnerships heavily influenced the music he made. When it was with Mike, the songs tended to be fast-paced surf ‘n’ cars pop songs. When it was with Tony Asher they were emotional ballads. When it was with Van Dyke Parks, it was SMiLE, and no song sums it up quite like Surf’s Up. The lyrics are very dense and baffling, but Brian’s music and his performance add so much heart to it all, not least the deeply sad ‘Surf’s up’ refrain. It was a classic when it appeared on the 70s album of the same name, but it belongs in SMiLE and both on Brian’s version and the Sessions set, it fits perfectly and I remember getting goosebumps the first time I heard it live on Brian’s SMiLE tour.
2 – Good Vibrations
The greatest pop single of all time. Written during the making of Pet Sounds with lyrics from Tony Asher, it ended up with slightly different Mike Love lyrics, but the greatest difference came as Brian became ever more experimental with his production techniques. He poured all of his efforts into this one song and the end result was mind-blowing, using instruments like cello and theremin, plus the wonderful vocals of Carl and the rest of the Boys. A ‘pocket symphony’ is how it was described and that sums it up perfectly, as does the fact that The SMiLE Sessions set devoted an entire disc to the recording sessions for this one song. This was Brian operating at the very peak of his powers.
1 – God Only Knows
Before it came out, there two things you knew for certain. One was that you couldn’t have a pop song with the word ‘God’ in the title if it wasn’t religious. Another was that you couldn’t start a love song with a line like ‘I may not always love you’. Even Brian rebelled against that lyric at first, but was eventually won over and thankfully so, because it’s a genius first line. But not quite as genius as the music, which stands up as one of the best pieces of music (of any kind) ever written. I’ve banged on about Carl’s singing many times in this list, but it’s telling that he sang lead on both of my top two and that Brian gave him this song even though he desperately wanted to sing it himself. It was another good decision and few could argue with its placing here.