Beach Boys: Album Guide - Rolling Stone
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The Beach Boys: Album Guide

America’s longest-running band — from surf rock to studio symphonies and beyond

The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys pose for a portrait in 1964. From left to right, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson.

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The Beach Boys are America’s most legendary rock & roll saga—and one of its most turbulent, with a twisted family history at the heart of it. The Wilson brothers were suburban California boys: Brian, the haunted pop genius hearing the harmonies in his head. Carl, the shy kid with the heavenly voice. Dennis, the wild-ass drummer who lived the cars-and-surf lifestyle Brian just sang about. Plus high school pal Al Jardine and a cousin of theirs named Mike Love, who prided himself on bringing the bad vibrations. They’ve spent over 50 years riding the wild surf — sometimes wiping out, often finding places nobody else could reach. Their hits are just the beginning — their catalog is full of timeless classics, gems buried on long-forgotten albums, crazed belly-flops. So here’s a map to the Beach Boys’ sprawl of a songbook.

Going Deeper: ‘Surfin’ USA’ (1963)

The title tune is their teen-spirit anthem, souping up the Chuck Berry riff from “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Despite a few too many tossed-off surf instrumentals, the LP shines on “Farmer’s Daughter” and the beach-goth ballad “Lovely Sea.”

beach boys

Going Deeper: ‘Beach Boys’ Party!’ (1965)

Capitol wanted a quickie LP in time for Christmas, so the Boys trooped into the studio with some buddies and girlfriends and brewskis to slap out a bunch of covers (mostly Fifties oldies, plus the Beatles and Dylan) with acoustic guitars, hand claps, rowdy harmonies and a hell of a lot of bottles getting clinked. They even got a hit out of it: “Barbara Ann.”

Going Deeper: ‘Smiley Smile’ (1967)

How did the Beach Boys spend the Summer of Love? Hiding out in the studio, of course. Smiley Smile (imagined as a stripped-down Smile) is loose and quirky, not far from Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. One of the few guests: Paul McCartney, who can be heard chewing celery on “Vegetables.”

Going Deeper: ‘Surf’s Up’ (1971)

Brian appeared on a 1967 Leonard Bernstein TV special, sitting alone at his home piano to stun viewers with his new song, “Surf’s Up.” The epic ballad (originally recorded for Smile) took years to get released, but it was worth the wait. Nobody has ever really figured out what Van Dyke Parks is going on about in the abstruse lyrics, but the Boys sing them like every word is true. It’s the climax of a mournful album about facing adulthood.

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