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(Credit: Capitol Records)

Music

The Beach Boys 20 greatest songs of all time

@jackwhatley89

There aren’t many bands who encapsulate American pop music’s golden age more succinctly than the sprawling talent of The Beach Boys. Comprised as a family band, centred around the Wilson brothers Carl, Dennis and Brian with additional help from their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, The Beach Boys became America’s answer to The Beatles very soon after the British invasion had posed the question.

For a while, there was no band that better told America’s post-war story than the Californians. They did it through a myriad of musical styles and a humble authenticity. Soon enough, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys became heroes. Upcoming this year is the 60th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ formation. Capitol Records and UMe will release a newly remastered and expanded edition of The Beach Boys’ career-spanning greatest hits collection, Sounds Of Summer: The Very Best Of The Beach Boys, on June 17th, 2022 to celebrate.

The Beach Boys made good on their name and sang about the sunshine, sand, and salutations of West Coast living through their songs. It meant that surfing and chasing girls in hot rods were at the top of the agenda, and The Beach Boys found their spot at the top of the pop pile thanks to their unique sound and Brian Wilson’s unstoppable talent for songwriting.

Of course, it wasn’t the full story, and The Beach Boys had far more to offer than simple surf songs and a harmony that struggled to be beaten. Below, we’re bringing you ten of our favourite songs from the band as a reminder of their immense talent.

In 1961, as The Beatles reminded only the most distant murmurs, Brian Wilson finished penning his song ‘Surfin” and gathered himself a band. Recruiting his brothers Dennis and Carl, as well as his cousin Mike and friend Al, he assembled his group around the piano and began orchestrating what would become The Beach Boys’ very first song. Brian was only 19 at the time but already showing the kind of promising songwriting style that would see him, and the band, flourish throughout the sixties.

Through a series of pop smashes and the kind of exposure only afforded to the best provided The Beach Boys with a pop platform to succeed, Brian Wilson was driven by creativity over commerciality, and he used the decade to stretch his muscles.

As the years went by, the desire for the band to outstrip their surfer boy image became all the more prevalent. Through their music, we saw a band not only grow but mature and become one of the most important voices of 20th-century pop.

Below, we’re taking a closer look at our 20 favourite songs from the band and how they helped shape a legacy like no other.

The Beach Boys 20 best songs:

20. ‘Barbara Ann’

“Jesus that ear,” Bob Dylan once declared of Brian Wilson. “He made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.” The layered vocals of ‘Barbara Ann’ are testimony to this glowing assertion. Wilson has an inherent sense of melody that is literally unrivalled in music.

From another perspective, this song could seem kitsch, but thanks to its hook it just bristles something sequenced in human DNA to result in a toe tap and a smile. Before all the Pet Sounds innovation, tracks like ‘Barbara Ann’ laid down the melodious groundwork. There isn’t much to it, but the bare constituent parts are utterly unforgettable – that’s the mark of a genius.

19. ‘Here Today’

“It starts with just a little glance now,” the tune begins, and in a meta sense it offers the listener’s ear a flirtatious introduction. There is simply something sanguine about the tonality of Pet Sounds that has a way of instantly delivering a slither of sunshine and a sanguine smile.

‘Here Today’ might not be the strongest track amid the masterpiece, but there is just something about its instantaneous joy that stirs with charm. This is only added to by the slightly manic middle-eight where things fall apart in a strangely alluring way that certainly inspired some of the dissonant moments scattered throughout Sgt. Peppers

18. ‘This Whole World’

Ron Wood once offered up the rather surprising take that he thought Wilson had a “very bluesy” feel to his songwriting. While most people would think that the only blues around The Beach Boys are the azure or crystalline type you see in travel adverts, there are certain times when Wood’s opinion seems on point.

‘This Whole World’ has a much more classic and rooted feel than most. The bluesy guitar might quickly become lost under the layers, but the core tenet of the track is really rather rocky. This style gives it a fresh feel in their back catalogue. And what’s more, apparently it used to pop when they played it live.

17. ‘Sloop John B’

Once more that ear comes to the fore. It might not be the most refined work on offer, but it is a mark of Wilson’s melodic understanding once more that he is so adept at crafting the sort of structures that can be sung on the terraces of sports stadia the world over. While chants might not be considered beautiful, the fact that Wilson’s tune has transcended itself and entered a wider sphere of culture is an achievement in of itself.

It was Neil Young who asserted: “He’s like Mozart or Chopin or Beethoven or something. This music will live forever.” The fact that this melody has a whistle while you work life beyond itself may well be early proof of that.

16. ‘Surfer Girl’

Boy oh boy, if this isn’t dreamy then I don’t know what is. Like a lot of Beach Boys tunes, this track soars when it settles into its own natural habitat. It might be a little reverb-drenched for the rattle of the subway, but amid the sun and sand it offers up a hammock of pillow-propped contentment.

Sweet without being overly saccharine, it’s a simple track that does exactly what it sets out to do – that is a beautiful thing in itself, because I, for one, hate it when a song does do what it says it was going to do. You can switch off and slosh like the waves resting assured that ‘Surfer Girl’ will sound as sweet as the title implies. Not bad for the first song he ever wrote.

15. ‘Caroline, No’

Hushed and almost resigned, the boys take a sorrowful turn on Pet Sound’s ‘Caroline, No’. This is a masterstroke in a way. After all, it could be all sunshine and rainbows without at least a drizzle. ‘Caroline, No’ is a heavenly shower of perfectly considered half-notes.

Perhaps the most triumphant moment of all is the beautifully mournful horn sound that closes the track before the fairly bizarre railroad ending. They took their time with this record, refusing to rush the technological innovation if it meant sacrificing the art, and that shows with the production sounds on tracks like this one.

14. ‘Marcella’

Anyone who thinks that The Beach Boys are samey obviously aren’t in need of a holiday. A month in Majorca might get samey but most of us would snap it up in a heartbeat. ‘Marcella’ might seem the gang rely on their usual tenets, but they always have a trick up their sleeve – in this case, a sensual guitar solo – to send the night off in sangria style.

A sexy ode to ‘Marcella’ this is the sort of Valentine’s Day gift that takes the biscuit and makes the rest of us look like schmucks holding petrol stoplight roses. Romance rarely comes as seamless and un-soppy as it does here. 

13. ‘The Warmth of the Sun’

Glenn Frey called them the “greatest American vocal band ever” and with performances like ‘The Warmth of the Sun’ there can be no argument with that. There really is nothing to this track barring a vocal cacophony that plops a stool beneath your feet and pours you a cold drink.

Moreover, there is a bountiful joy to be enjoyed from poetry as simple as the title of the track itself. You need to know a lot about who you are and what you are offering as a creative to put things as simply and concisely as The Beach Boys do. With only five words Wilson and co paint a beauteous vignette. 

12. ‘Sail On, Sailor’

‘Sail On, Sailor’ came out of a time of troubled waters for Wilson. At one point in the production, when the group were urging him to focus on the work at hand, he even uttered, “Hypnotize me Van Dyke [Parks] and make me believe I’m not crazy. Convince me I’m not crazy.” But from that tempestuous time came a track that showed he still had plenty of skill in his locker.

“Let’s write a tune,” was Parks’ only decree for the track and that comes across. It is limited in the conversely triumphant sense. It never stretches to be anything other than a ditty, and with the help of Three Dog Night it succeeds in that regard with aplomb.

11. ‘California Girls’

“Well, my personal two favourite Beach Boys songs are ‘California Girls’ and ‘Surfer Girl’,” Wilson once remarked. “That’s my personal taste in our music”. And how refreshing it is for a star not to be contrarian and opt for defining anthems when appraising their own work.

It is tracks like ‘California Girls’ that spring to mind immediately when you think of the sunshine in the sonic form that The Beach Boys offer up. It is quite simply musical medicine, the tonality is dripping with Vitamin D, the key changes are a cloud-shifting cheer, and the harmonies are a happy force to behold. That might not be groundbreaking but it is magical.

10. ‘I Get Around’

It’s hard to ignore one fact about The Beach Boys, whether you think they’re a little too ‘obvious’, perhaps even flirting with the possibility of being ‘tacky’, the truth is that The Beach Boys are fun. What better song to show off that inherent joy than the wonderful ‘I Get Around’.

Taking the beach fun they had enjoyed with ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ on to the open roads, Mike Love and Brian Wilson use some creative license to get the band motoring.

By 1964, The Beach Boys had asserted themselves on the charts, and this song was another step toward worldwide fame — it allowed the West Coast to shine through without such unattainable beachside rhetoric.

9. ‘Forever’

The band wasn’t all about Mike Love and Brian Wilson, though, and by the time the group released 1971’s Sunflower, Dennis Wilson had progressed from being an adequate drummer to being one of the band’s chief-musical experimenters. The best vision of this innovation was on the wonderful ‘Forever’.

The ballad is joyfully appointed and stands up to the competitive element that ran throughout the group’s songwriting.

It was clear Dennis had found his voice and, as one may have expected, it was a delicately poised one. ‘Forever’ is arguably the standout song on the album and ranks highlight as Dennis’ best.

8. ‘Til I Die’

1972’s Surf’s Up may not go down in history as one of The Beach Boys’ greatest albums of all time, but it did contain this absolute beauty. ‘Til I Die’ is one song that typifies the band.

Not only is it a sweet ballad wrapped in the scintillating harmonies of the Wilson brothers, but the song was an open reflection of the troubles Brian was facing in his life as the world grew smaller.

Following a nervous breakdown, Wilson was being kept off the tour schedule and was having his life largely controlled by those around him. “I’m a cork on the ocean/Floating over the raging sea/How deep is the ocean?” sings the band, heartbreakingly showcasing the demise of the genius. But perhaps the saddest moment comes with Wilson’s acceptance of the situation, singing: “These things I’ll be until I die.”

7. ‘In My Room’

Part of what made The Beach Boys such a massive commercial entity in the early days was the band’s shining innocence. While The Beatles represented something a little bit dangerous, The Beach Boys were the all-American clean-cut outfit who would promptly have your lawn cut for payment of a cold glass of lemonade.

It was songs like ‘In My Room’ that helped put them there as the heroes of a new generation.

However, scratch away at the surface, and the reality of this innocent song becomes very dark very quickly. Wilson and his brothers had suffered greatly at the hand of their abusive father, Murray. Brian has since gone on to refer to his father as “cruel”, and it’s clear that a younger Brian sought the refuge of his room. It turns this song into a completely different proposition.

6. ‘Heroes & Villains’

Trying to follow an album like Pet Sounds was always likely to pose a challenge but Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys responded the very next year with Smiley Smile and, within it, brought some of their best tunes too. ‘Heroes & Villains’ must be remembered as one of those great tracks.

Wilson and Van Dyke Parks settled down to write the song together as part of the record and brought a sense of worldly humour to the album. It’s a song that not only enjoys impressive lyrical displays and the kind of myriad of musical instruments one expects from the group, but with a sense of whimsy that is often missing from their other work.

In truth, it soon turns into a sinister doo-wop bop that deserves revisiting.

5. ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’

Released as part of Pet Sounds in 1966, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, arguably one of Wilson’s finest yet most overlooked songs. It’s a track that shattered the fourth wall and broke Wilson’s vision of himself to his awaiting audience.

The record is littered with deeply personal affections that seemed to make every song feel all the more genuine and wholesome. The melancholic lyrics would often blend seamlessly into the pulsating and captivating music that Wilson expertly coaxed from his over-worked session musicians. Heaven and hell arrived in a selection of different pop songs plucked from Wilson’s brain.

Wilson told Esquire that the song was “a social statement. I felt like I didn’t belong, that my ideas were ahead of the times. But it’s nice to know how much people love and respect what I did back then, and I’m in a better place now than I was when I was younger.” Indeed, Wilson was far ahead of his time both musically and psychologically; the singer always had an old head on his shoulders.

4. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’

In 1966 The Beach Boys released ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, the now-iconic opening track from the band’s pioneering album Pet Sounds. The song would be a shining piece of the album’s jigsaw and act as a bright and beaming pop refrain.

Two months after the album’s release date, the Beach Boys released ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ as the lead single and, quite remarkably, chose ‘God Only Knows’ as the B-side. As a simply astounding double bill, the two tracks have both had their iconic vocals isolated. It allows a window into the song’s conception. While the song has been credited as written by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love, the band has since confessed that the band’s leader Wilson is predominantly responsible for its formation. “The innocence of the situation—being too young to get married—seemed to be immensely appealing to him,” Asher once said.

The somewhat intimate lyrics depict a young couple in love, resenting their age as a factor as to why they cannot go on the run to get married and, when discussing the words, Wilson described the song as “what children everywhere go through” before adding that “wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, or could run away and get married.”

3. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’

Few songs touch Brian Wilson in a more personal way than The Ronettes song ‘Be My Baby’. Written in part by the infamous producer Phil Spector, Wilson paid homage to the song with his own attempt at a ’60s girl group bop, providing the world with the similarly wonderful ‘Don’t Worry Baby’.

Lyrically, the song centres on the story of a drag car racer needing the support of his girl before he can hit the accelerator pedal. But, in truth, this matters very little to one’s enjoyment of the song. Instead, we are given a universal and attainable depiction of a man in need of reassurance.

Speaking with Goldmine in 2011 Wilson said of the song: “I wrote that with Roger Christian and it took me two days to write it. I started out with the verse idea and then wrote the chorus. It was a very simple and beautiful song. It’s a really heart and soul song, I really did feel that in my heart. Some say it’s about a car and others say it’s about a girl, who’s right? It’s both. It’s about a car and a woman.”

It’s about as perfect as pop music can get.

2. ‘Good Vibrations’

A number one hit is all well and good, but you only really know you have a timeless classic when it’s allowed to age—gracefully or otherwise. It’s fair to say that The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ is certainly in that category. Not only is it a cheery pop song but also a subversive piece of artistic prowess. Wilson created the song following his interest in what his mother once determined as “cosmic vibrations” and how dogs bark at people with bad vibrations. It was enough to spark some of the most well-known lyrics of all time.

‘Good Vibrations’ is one of The Beach Boys’ most ubiquitous tracks. Going a long way to help popularise the phrase, Wilson’s pop masterpiece from the Smiley Smile LP, the song, took many learnings from Pet Sounds and saw Wilson try to enact his own version of the Wall of Sound. With help from Tony Asher, he got the lyrics moving too.

“Brian was playing what amounts to the hook of the song: ‘Good, good, good, good vibrations.’ He started telling me the story about his mother,” Asher recalled. “He said he’d always thought that it would be fun to write a song about vibes and picking them up from other people. So as we started to work, he played this little rhythmic pattern—a riff on the piano, the thing that goes under the chorus.”

The track remains one of the most textured, cultured and delicately balanced pieces of pop music you will ever hear. As poignant and poetic as it is catchy and luscious. It is without doubt one of the finest piece of pop music ever composed and a mark of the sheer genius Brian Wilson had in his mind and at his fingertips.

1. ‘God Only Knows’

Brian Wilson’s songwriting in the early days of The Beach Boys inevitably included cars, surfing, and always the pursuit of girls, California or otherwise. The combination of those lyrics with the band unique rhythm made for perfect pieces of great American candy-pop for us all to rot our teeth with. But it was on 1966’s Pet Sounds, Wilson’s masterpiece, that his ultimate love song appeared in the form of ‘God Only Knows’.

The song that Paul McCartney once called “the greatest song ever written” (often cited as the inspiration for his own ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’) would go on to find its home on the dancefloors of countless weddings, as it to this day remains Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s masterpiece of emotion.

When a song is so culturally large as ‘God Only Knows’ is, one expects the song to have been crafted meticulously and pawed over for hours when, in truth, these things often happen in an instant. And so it is true for this track as the story goes as Wilson told The Guardian, “I wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. Me and Tony Asher,” though it must be said, the execution of the song to record took a lot longer.

The track would be covered by many artists following its release as generations continue to find and discover the intricate beauty of Brian Wilson’s songwriting. While Brian would happily share the credit for this track with Asher and his brother, Carl, the song remains to this day as a beacon of his genius, the moment he cultivated his sound into the ultimate love song.

Wilson once described the track as “a vision … It’s like being blind, but in being blind, you can see more. You close your eyes; you’re able to see a place or something that’s happening.” The ideas he conveyed in ‘God Only Knows’, he said, “Summarised everything I was trying to express in a single song.” From Wilson, that’s high praise indeed.