The Beach Boys, An Annotated Tour

RateYourMusic user nervenet‘s excellent Lou [Reed], in order list got me thinking of how I could put together a similar guided tour through a particular artist’s discography that avoids being either a ranked list or a chronological one.  So here is my guide to navigating through The Beach Boys’ catalog, hitting the highs, the lows, and points in between.

The Greatest Hits – Volume 1: 20 Good Vibrations
The Greatest Hits Vol.1: 20 Good Vibrations (1999)

Well, if you live in the United States at least, The Beach Boys are so ubiquitous on the radio, on the TV, and everywhere, that you’ve probably heard most or all of these songs somewhere before.  So that’s where we’ll begin this tour through The Beach Boys catalog.  I don’t think this specific compilation makes a particularly representative overview of the group’s whole career, but it is just what it claims to be: a gathering of the group’s biggest hits.  So I’ll assume you already know The Beach Boys as a vocal pop band, kind of focused on surf music and catchy fun-in-the-sun tunes.  Well, that’s only the beginning…

Pet Sounds
Pet Sounds (1966)

The classic Pet Sounds is the place to start if you want to get to know The Beach Boys.  It was then-bandleader Brian Wilson‘s coming of age epic.  If you are at least in your mid-to-late teens or early twenties, then chances are you’ll connect with something on this album.  It’s a lot more introverted that most of the band’s biggest hits (yeah, I know you know those already).  But as we’ll see a little later on, introverted songwriting is a big part of what made Brian Wilson a pop music genius.  A bonus with this album is that it features a guest, hired-gun lyricist (Tony Asher), who tremendously bolsters Brian’s sometimes undeveloped lyrical sense.  However, if you think this is the best album The Beach Boys ever made, you need to read on, because we’ll get to that later…

The Beach Boys Today!
The Beach Boys Today! (1965)

Okay, so we’ve touched on the vaunted Pet Sounds already, so it’s time to go back and pick up on a few earlier albums that led up to it.  Frankly, The Beach Boys started out as a teen group and their early albums are very thin.  Often pushed to release albums of mostly uninteresting filler, their earliest hits are best heard apart from the early albums (and you’ve heard the hits before!).  The Beach Boys Today! is one of the best–probably THE best–of the pre-Pet Sounds albums.  You can actually hear the group starting to hit their stride with the full-fledged orchestrated pop that made them great on songs like “Please Let Me Wonder” and “She Knows Me Too Well” that populate side two.  But you also get a shot in the arm of fun pop songs on side one, like “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Do You Wanna Dance.”  But what you shouldn’t overlook is the original album-only version of “Help Me, Ronda” (it’s spelled differently than the more popular later version), which is perhaps the best version the group recorded.  This album is helped tremendously by the fact that session musicians like Hal Blaine were being used on the records by this point, so that the boys could focus on the vocals.

Summer Days (And SUmmer Nights!!)
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)

Another nice little album that pre-dates Pet Sounds is this one.  Although people criticize it for lacking any kind of cohesive vision, it does certainly have a lot of great songs:  “California Girls,” the slightly Beatlesesque “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” the best-known version of “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Let Him Run Wild.”  While there are some throwaway tracks here–the bane of the earliest Beach Boys albums–lots of the “filler” is quite enjoyable, if straightforward, vocal pop.

The SMiLE Sessions
The SMiLE Sessions (2011)

We’ve gotten through a few discs now.  The truth is, though, you’re probably still listening to Pet Sounds.  Actually, you should be, it’s just that good.  Well, you’re probably also starting to wonder “How could they follow this up?”  At the time, answering that question seemed to trouble Brian Wilson quite a bit too.  The planned follow-up was SMiLE.  The project, perhaps the most ambitous pop album ever attempted to date, never really came to fruition.  Van Dyke Parks, a brilliant lyricists with surrealist tendencies, was brought in to pen the words for Brian Wilson’s music.  With some great songs in hand, recording began.  But, for whatever reasons (there were probably many), Brian Wilson broke down before the album could be completed and the project was shelved.  Of course, one song–the most expensive to record in history–did emerge as a single: “Good Vibrations.”  So this album remained a mystery.  Instead, Brian retreated to his house.  He built an indoor sandbox in his living room.  He drained his swimming pool and set up recording equipment in it.  From the safety of his own home, and with a few (very few) snippets and songs from the SMiLE sessions, Brian Wilson had The Beach Boys record their next album to actually see release. Smiley Smile.  Fast forward a few decades, well, almost four decades actually.  Brian is back, and he has released a newly-recorded solo album called Presents SMiLE, after revisiting fragments of the original recordings.  He even tours to support that effort.  But then, another seven years later, comes the surprise of The SMiLE Sessions.  It’s not new recordings of the old songs.  These are the old recordings stitched together.  At last!  Hallelujah!  The holy grail of 60s pop!  Well, er, almost.  No doubt, this is a classic, even decades late.  The orchestration soars, the tunes, magnificent.  Yet there’s also something not quite right in some of the digital manipulations used to pull together the unfinished recordings for the original album.  It’s minor quibble altogether, but it’s one reason not to start your Beach Boys journey here.  You’re gonna have to make this a stop on it though.  The sunshine daydreaming, the childish mythology, the druggy schizophrenia, the historical compendium-building, the christian moralizing, the hopeful irreverence–The SMiLE Sessions are all that and more.  This must be called something other than simply SMiLE, but a newcomer is probably best served sticking to the presentation of the “original” album and skip the bonus tracks (for now), so as to bask in the wonderful vision and not turn it into something tedious.

Smiley Smile
Smiley Smile (1967)

Smiley Smile.  To some it is an unmitigated disaster. But it’s my favorite Beach Boys album.  If you hate this album, you are probably going to have a pretty different opinion about most of the rest of the catalog (although there might be a few places we agree a little at least).  But anyway, this is about as “out there” an album as The Beach Boys ever made.  It’s dark at times, full of surreal imagery, and creative as hell.  The recordings are a little coarse at times (remember the recording equipment in the swimming pool?).  Still, “Wonderful” anticipates Sonic Youth‘s “Little Trouble Girl” by almost three decades.  Good luck finding any cut-up mix of eclectic sounds like “She’s Going Bald” anywhere from the same time period, or anything as good from any later period.  And “Little Pad” is a perfect statement of the kind of romanticized, dreamy songwriting that from here on out will separate the Brian Wilson fans from all the others.  We also have the poppy “Vegetables”, the peppy “Gettin’ Hungry”, and one of the very best ballads the group ever recorded in “With Me Tonight”.  And you know, “Whistle In” has the kind of stream-of-consciousness diary-like quality that wouldn’t surface anywhere significant until Mark E. Smith and The Fall resurrected it almost two decades later.  But I digress.  Needless to say, I for one find the most wildly innovative ideas in the whole Beach Boys catalog on this album.  If you want refinement, you’re better off looking elsewhere (like the Kenny G discography).  But like I said, this one remains my favorite for its dense, inscrutable charms.

Wild Honey
Wild Honey (1967)

So this, the follow-up to Smiley Smile, was probably another surprise for those trying to anticipate what The Beach Boys would do next.  Wild Honey was the most stripped down, rocking album the group had made yet.  The driving title track would become a concert favorite in the coming years (particularly with Blondie Chaplin to play it, but more on him later).  This album brought The Beach Boys back into critical regard somewhat, and it inspired a lot of other artists to adopt a more stipped-down recording style too.  But really it’s quite simply one of the nicest, most enjoyable and listenable Beach Boys albums around.  No, there are no hits you’ll ever hear on the radio (even Smiley Smile ended up including “Good Vibrations”).  But the mellow, soulful sound here is just real nice.  Later, under Brain’s brother Carl Wilson’s direction, the band would return to a more soul-influenced sound, but the results then would never come close to the heights of Wild Honey.

Friends
Friends (1968)

Okay, having some familiarity with the hits behind us, the praised Pet Sounds and some very good earlier albums, as well as the travails of SMiLE and its progeny also behind us, it’s finally time to get to probably the best Beach Boys album.  Virtually unknown outside of the realm of Beach Boys fandom these days, Friends is the group doing everything at their peak capacity.  The songwriting is phenominal.  Songs written with Van Dyke Parks for the SMiLE sessions are still showing up here in force.  Dennis Wilson even contributes his songwriting for the first time. And if Pet Sounds is a coming-of-age album, this is the one about fully arriving at adulthood.  While I’ve driven home the great songwriting already, the songwriting here is really only part of the story.  Brian Wilson produced all the Beach Boys material during this era.  His talents in producing recorded music were the best this side of Sly Stone.  Brian could absolutely perfectly balance instrumentation, timbres, rhythm…heck…EVERYTHING that goes into a recording, that it just astounds me every time I hear this album.  But you don’t have to really get into all that to enjoy this album.  This is just one of the best pop albums I can think of.  It has zero hits you’ll ever hear on the radio (yet again).  But I do think part of why people ignore this album is also due the fact that it’s one that largely revolves around reaching adulthood, and let’s face it, that never really happens for a lot of people, or at least they are done listening to pop music by the time it does happen.  In that sense, I can understand how some won’t relate.  So this one slipped through the cracks.  But as Bob Dylan supposedly once said at a Beach Boys concert, “You know they’re fucking good, man.” True.

Sunflower
Sunflower (1970)

A good effort for the 1970s Beach Boys.  This album has held up better than most from the era. But clearly, they had lost a step by this point (don’t believe the fan hype surrounding this one).  The best tracks are the ones with the most input from Brian, like “This Whole World.”   You can feel the schmaltz creeping in here though.

Surf's Up
Surf’s Up (1971)

Here’s an album on which I disagree with a lot of Beach Boys aficionados.  I think this is a pretty marginal album.  Of course, it does have some essential tracks, namely the closers “‘Til I Die” and “Surf’s Up.”  I guess for that reason it can’t be missed.  Really, the title track here is one of the very best Beach Boys cuts from any era.  But the other stuff, like “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows,” are really only mediocre.  Plus, we have the return of worthless filler like “Disney Girls (1957)” and “Student Demonstration Time.”  Well, all things considered this still beats a lot of other albums…

Surfin' Safari
Surfin’ Safari (1962)

Time to come back to reality.  Here’s the first ever Beach Boys album.  It’s an almost totally forgettable assemblage of filler, with the title track and their breakout single “Surfin'” thrown in.  I put this here on the list so that we remember to appreciate how good things were in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s.

Surfer Girl
Surfer Girl (1963)

This is a huge step up from the group’s debut album.  We’ve got more hits here.  “In My Room”, “Surfer Girl” and “Little Deuce Coupe” were big advances in songwriting.  But still a lot of filler.

Shut Down Volume 2
Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)

This mysteriously titled album (there is no “Vol. 1”) makes a few more advances in songwriting with “Don’t Worry Baby” and “The Warmth of the Sun”, and includes the popular “Fun, Fun, Fun.”  I think it’s at least as good as Surfer Girl.  But still too much throwaway filler!  In fact, much of this is far worse than just throwaway filler.  “Denny’s Drums” is rightly the butt of many Beach Boys jokes, and “‘Cassius’ Love vs. ‘Sonny’ Wilson” is just as bad.

20/20
20/20 (1969)

Okay, back to some stronger material.  Well, 20/20 isn’t really a cohesive album-length statement like most of the mid-to-later 1960s albums, but it has more good songs than most of the early albums.  With the nostalgic fun times hit “Do It Again,” the unique rocker “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” the Brian Wilson sleeper “Time to Get Alone,” the song supposedly originally written by Charles Manson and the Manson Family “Never Learn Not to Love,” and some more SMiLE leftovers in “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer,” this one is all over the map.  But even so, and even if this release was kind of an attempt to clear the vaults, there are still a lot of good songs present here.  You need to hear this at some point.

The Beach Boys In Concert
The Beach Boys in Concert (1973)

I like to think of this as one of the hidden gems in the Beach Boys catalog.  Coming as a live album in the early-to-mid 1970s, it doesn’t look promising on paper.  Brian had stopped touring with the band long ago, and he really wasn’t doing much at all, if anything, with band at this point.  And Mike Love was long an advocate of milking the summer fun hits that were easy to perform live (he got his way soon enough).  But here, we actually get a lot of great, more complex songs.  Even the rambling “Heroes and Villains” from Smiley Smile appears.  And a few of the versions of songs from the early 1970s studio albums (“Marcella”, “Leaving This Town”) sound better live than on the studio originals.  The value of newish members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar is clear.  Their contributions, though their songwriting is maligned by some, are far superior to wholesale crap like “The Nearest Faraway Place” offered on 20/20 by departed member Bruce Johnston (good riddance!  But he would return).  I guess you have to like The Beach Boys by this point, and need to have heard some of their poorer albums, to really appreciate this album.  It may not be great, and I wouldn’t quite call it essential–it comes close though.  But if you have made it this far and are still intrigued, you’ll really enjoy this one.  It’s a nice little reminder of why Bob Dylan made his “famous” comment that I mentioned above.

Beach Boys Concert
Beach Boys Concert (1964)

Okay, this has a wide reputation as being a pretty bad live album.  It’s not wholly terrible, but it’s not good either.  It has serviceable versions of a few of their early hits, some generally poor covers, and an unfortunate amount of instrumentals–never one of the group’s strengths.  You probably don’t even need to listen to this.  But by way of contrast, it does show how welcome The Beach Boys In Concert was as a live entry in the catalog.

Carl and The Passions - "So Tough"
Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972)

When Brian went pretty much into full retirement, his brother Carl Wilson took over the duties of producing the records. He’s in charge here, as the title suggests.  Also, with this album, we first hear the new South African members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar.  This is a pretty disappointing record.  It has a few decent cuts, without having anything particularly memorable.   The soulful blues rock of “Here She Comes,” written and sung entirely by Chaplin and Fataar, is something totally new for a Beach Boys record.  It’s a good cut to fool someone with in a blindfold test.  Brian’s “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” may be the best here.  But “Cuddle Up,” with string arrangements from Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille “fame” is just awful.  I don’t want to hear any of this “but it’s a touching performance by Dennis” crap.  That shit blows and y’all should know better.

Holland
Holland (1973)

The Beach Boys were clearly in trouble by this point.  They really weren’t very popular anymore, and their last few albums had been decreasing in quality.  Some see Holland, which was recorded in the Netherlands, as a comeback album.  I’m not one of those people.  It’s okay.  I think it’s a little better than Carl and The Passions, but not by much at all.  Of course, what we have for the album opener is really the last of the leftovers from Brian‘s collaboration with Van Dyke Parks in “Sail On, Sailor.”  It’s one of the few really great songs The Beach Boys recorded in the 1970s.  The “California Saga” medley starts out fine with the “Big Sur” segment, but it has some dismal lows by the time it wraps with Al Jardine‘s “California” segment.  There are some interesting moments elsewhere, but this really is a disappointing album.

Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale)
Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale) (1973)

A free bonus EP included with Holland.  It’s an unusual child-like spoken word piece set to music.  You guessed right if you think this one is all Brian.  Actually it’s a fascinating concept, and the background music is quite good at times.  But the band manager Jack Rieley does the narration without any spirit, and Brian’s words are clumsy at times.  Conceptually, this is way more interesting than Holland itself.  It comes across as a little half-assed.  I still like it.

Good Vibrations: 30 Years of The Beach Boys
Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys (1993)

Okay, it took us a while, but we have pretty much made it through the release of most of the leftover songs from SMiLE on later recordings.  Now, at first glance this box set might seem totally unnecessary, as we have already made it through a slew of Beach Boys albums as part of this list, not to mention all the hits you know from the radio.  But this isn’t what I would call a conventional box set.  Yeah, it’s got most or all of the big hits here, but the reason huge fans will need to look into it at this point is the fact that it contains most of the previously unreleased outtakes from the SMiLE recording sessions in piecemeal form.  That includes a great solo rendition of “Surf’s Up” by Brian at his piano, and all the bits of songs that had been eventually renamed and recycled through the early 1970s.  You could, if so inclined, even make your very own SMiLE bootleg!  It’s a hobby that has maybe lost some luster after not one but many incarnations of the album have been officially released, but no serious fan is going to take releases from forty years later at face value; those brave few are going to fix something, even if they have to break it first.

Presents SMiLE
Brian Wilson
Presents SMiLE (2004)

If you enjoyed The SMiLE Sessions, it may be worth finding the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE solo version too.  Now, some of you will complain that Brian’s new backing band The Wondermints are nothing compared the original Beach Boys.  And some of you will say that these songs, and the album as a whole, seem a bit more concise and streamlined than what had been reported about the aborted original album suggested.  And a lot of you will probably find this rendered completely superfluous by The SMiLE Sessions.  Well, feel free to complain.  If you’ve made it this far down the list, you’ve earned the right to bitch and moan a little.  But apart from what this album could have been or whatever, this is still some great music.  It is a little out of place 40 years after it was written, but that shouldn’t matter.  I was lucky enough to go to the first ever live performance of the album in the United States (me and a slew of middle-aged men wearing tacky Hawaiian shirts).  This recording didn’t entirely live up to the live performance for me, but I still like it.

15 Big Ones
15 Big Ones (1976)

This was billed as a great “comeback” for the band.  I find it to be a practically unlistenable piece of garbage, with the exception of “Had to Phone Ya.”  This was an unmistakable sign that the band’s best times were over.  The title refers to 15 big turds, er, crummy tracks.

Love You
Love You (1977)

Originally a Brain Wilson solo effort converted into a Beach Boys record.  Fans like this one for its weirdness and the fact that Brian was back in form, musically.  Still, Brian was working without the aid of a lyricist, and so we get a lot of garbage in that department, like a song about Johnny Carson with the line “when guests are boring he fills up the slack.”  In spite of the weak lyrics, the goofiness of this is charming, and fun.  Chronologically, this is probably the last Beach Boys album worth bothering with.

M.I.U. Album
M.I.U. Album (1978)

After Love You, this one was a disappointment.  The group isn’t trying very hard, and seems to be just going through the motions listlessly.  They hit some pretty low points toward the end of the album (“Match Point of Our Love,” which actually sounds worse than its title!).  Still, there are a few halfway decent songs here and most of the album is serviceable, if fairly nondescript and bland.  Highly committed fans might get something small from this album, but it is not of general interest.

L.A. (Light Album)
L.A. (Light Album) (1979)

An album emblematic of The Beach Boys’ descent into soft rock purgatory.  Most of this is so bland it drifts by without notice, with the better tracks (“Good Timin’,” “Angel Come Home,” “Baby Blue”) not really good enough compared to their best material to cause that much of a stir and the bad tracks (“Here Comes the Night,” “Shortenin’ Bread”) so forced it’s embarrassing.  At this point it became clear that no matter how hard the group might try, they simply weren’t going to be able to be truly relevant anymore.  Still, the album is listenable for the most part, and fans of the slower material on the group’s various other 1970s albums might like it.

Keepin' the Summer Alive
Keepin’ the Summer Alive (1980)

By the 1980s, The Beach Boys hardly seemed relevant anymore.  Yet Keepin’ the Summer Alive has a few good tunes, including the title track.  This is better than the last couple albums, and better than anything that came later.  But it also casts the Boys as grumpy old timers desperately trying to summon up the past rather than looking toward the future.

Stack-o-Tracks
Stack-o-Tracks (1968)

This is an album full of instrumental versions of the band’s hits.  So it’s billed as basically a karaoke album.  A novelty item.

Little Deuce Coupe
Little Deuce Coupe (1963)

Another novelty.  This album features almost entirely songs about cars.  The best songs had previously been released on other albums.  Not much of interest new here.  A by-product of the ridiculous rush to put out “new” albums at too quick a pace.

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964)

Wrapping up the novelty entries in the catalog (pun intended), we have the christmas album.  It is short, at less than thirty minutes, but has the classic “Little Saint Nick” and some other good songs (“Merry Christmas, Baby,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are”).  It is a novelty though, and nothing essential.  Yet the boilerplate, Sinatra-esque orchestral backing utilized at times here may have pointed the way to more satisfying efforts that expanded on those kinds of ideas like The Beach Boys Today!, Pet Sounds, etc.  The Beach Boys came back to christmas music in the 1970s with a single “Child of Winter” and then another whole album that was rejected by their label and not originally released–at least some of that material was later released on Ultimate Christmas.

All Summer Long
All Summer Long (1964)

I needed to hold something back on the list so that the tail end doesn’t seem like just a bunch of marginal later efforts and oddities.  This one is another step up from Surfer Girl and Shut Down, Vol. 2, and was their best album up through that point.  But it is still a distinct step down from the very best albums in their catalog with the ever present bother of filler from which the early albums never escape.  But this one is pleasant, and can be handled all the way through.  It’s appropriately titled.

Surfin' USA
Surfin’ USA (1963)

Their second album has the horrid ripoff of Chuck Berry‘s “Sweet Little Sixteen” in “Surfin’ USA.”  Nothing too exciting here.

The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys (1985)

This was something of a reunion album after the death of Dennis Wilson.  Unfortunately, the album spawned a hit song, which probably encouraged the group to keep going well beyond their prime.  Anyway, this one makes extremely overt attempts to sound current, complete with lots of mid-1980s synths and drum machines.  Apart from the two mediocre songs that open the album, this could be classified by the UN as cruel and inhumane treatment of its listeners.  This is one of those albums that plays in the waiting room to hell–as the universe sadistically waits for you to realize that you are already there.

Still Cruisin'
Still Cruisin’ (1989)

This one has that song “Kokomo,” which I HATE.  And die hard fans insist that it is the best song on this album (I haven’t heard it fortunately).  Mike Love was fully in control of the band by this point.  Clearly, he had successfully killed the dream.  Surely, the band could sink no lower….

Summer in Paradise
Summer in Paradise (1992)

I think everyone with functioning ears would have been happy if The Beach Boys just hung it up after Love You or even L.A. (Light Album).  But instead, we have a parade of worthless junk tarnishing the catalog from the 1980s onward.  An album like this with John motherfuckin’ Stamos singing Dennis Wilson‘s “Forever” is perhaps the lowest of the low for the band (though, admittedly, it’s not that bad, and even better than some of the stuff the band proper was up to at this point).  Although, with some of the original members still alive (Mike Love, Al Jardine…looking in your direction) I won’t hold my breath on that.

Pacific Ocean Blue

Dennis Wilson

Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)

The one solo album Dennis Wilson completed before his drowning death. This makes the list to redeem that John Stamos track from Summer in Paradise, because it’s a fine album that is as good or better than anything The Beach Boys did from the 1970s forward.  Also be sure to check out Dennis in the great cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).

Beach Boys' Party!
Beach Boys’ Party! (1965)

A quickly tossed off album that few seem to like.  It’s actually much better than it seems.  Despite a lack of Brian Wilson originals, covers of the likes of The Beatles are choice.  There is a lot of energy here, and it’s a fun listen from beginning to end.  The vocals and instrumentals aren’t polished, but that’s part of what makes this feel as lively as it does.  Beach Boys’ Party! is worth giving a chance for anyone with an interest in the band’s pre-Pet Sounds period.

That's Why God Made the Radio
That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012)

A really late career comeback album that’s a roll-back to the group’s Pet Sounds-era music in many ways.  The lyrics are corny and there is definitely something artificial in the mix, particularly a feeling that the vocals are electronically processed, but this has touches of what made the group so great in their prime (*ahem*, Brian).  If you’ve exhausted everything else in that vein from the early years and still want more this is a better place to look than other post-1980 releases.

Live in London
Live in London (1970)

Some claim this live album is the group’s best.  I haven’t heard it to judge for sure.

Endless Summer
Endless Summer (1974)

In the midst of Brian Wilson‘s retirement from the band, and capping a commercial dry spell, Mike Love helped put together this collection of almost entirely pre-Pet Sounds hits.  The album, along with a follow-up named Spirit of America, was successful in terms of selling lots of copies.  In a way, Endless Summer helped define The Beach Boys’ presence on oldies radio.  This is the fun-in-the-sun side of the band that can indeed be a lot of fun, but I feel like it’s a little narrow in its scope and range.  That’s exactly why oldies radio gravitates to these hits (when’s the last time you heard a sad song on an oldies station?).  But these kinds of songs aren’t what bring me back to Beach Boys recordings often.

Classics Selected by Brian Wilson
Classics: Selected by Brian Wilson (2002)

This is the most interesting Beach Boys compilation that I’ve seen.  The tracks were selected by Brian Wilson, and he focuses on a lot of his own best songs.  For me at least, it’s those songs that I find myself wanting to listen to again and again.  There are a select few of the summertime hits here, but mostly this focuses on the songs you’ll never (or rarely) hear on the radio.  By this point in our tour, you’ve really heard everything The Beach Boys have to offer.  This disc, or a digital playlist resembling it, is probably what you’re looking to listen to on a regular basis to get a nice cross-section of the entire Beach Boys universe–if your tastes are anything like mine.

I’m going to end the list here.  The other stragglers in the catalog just aren’t worth mentioning.  Those are for the obsessively completist collectors only, and I’m not one of those (or am I?).

The Rolling Stones – Some Girls

Some Girls

The Rolling StonesSome Girls Rolling Stones Records CUN 39108 (1978)


If 1960s music, especially late 60s music, could be summed up in a line, it would be that boundaries were crossed and all possibilities were put on the table.  In the 1970s, the bands and artists that made such strides in the 60s had to do something with the newly socially permissive culture of the West, while tacitly acknowledging that the battles of the 60s for civil rights et al. were not definitively won by the forces of good.  So by the latter part of the 70s, there was a definite slide among more successful rockers towards decadence.  It’s in that milieu that the Stones delivered Some Girls.  It continues the attempts of Black and Blue (their last studio effort) to update the band’s sound, and seem relevant to the disco era, while also playing up a stylistic grab bag.  Unlike that predecessor though, this disc features a much greater amount of songwriting effort.  There are some pretty good tunes here, including the classic “Beast of Burden.”  If anything ties it all together it’s a feeling of weariness and anxiety behind a very jubilant facade.  The band can only barely hold it together.  It’s music for a party that has gone on long enough to see daylight.  But the careless hours of partying haven’t amounted to anything.  In truth, this album is not the great one some make it out to be.  In fact, it’s a little sad in many ways…did really everything the Stones do in the 60s and early 70s lead to this, only this?  Into the 80s, the band, like so many other 60s icons, would start to make music that resigned itself to defeat, that gave up on the promise of their achievements of the 60s.  The contented themselves to rest on the achievements of better days gone by.  But that was a still a few years off.  For the time being, the boys had a little bit of fight left in them, and here you can listen to it burn up and slip away.

Anthony Braxton – Five Pieces 1975

Five Pieces 1975

Anthony BraxtonFive Pieces 1975 Arista AL 4064 (1975)


Anthony Braxton has to be one of the last jazz musicians to achieve “giant” status before the genre’s popularity declined to the point where doing so became an impossibility.  It has been noted that when he was the first jazz signing to the new major label Arista, he promised to be some kind of crossover success (see the liner notes to The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton and a November 2008 essay in The Wire magazine discussing its release).  Well, success he certainly did achieve.  Despite the widely-held belief that new jazz was no longer profitable for labels or musicians from the mid-1970s onward, Braxton’s series of albums for Arista all sold relatively well–enough for the label to break even even if Braxton himself never financially profited.  In terms of being a “crossover” artist, that is a bit more difficult to assess.  Leading up to his tenure with Arista, he had recorded works like For Alto that extended into the territory of modern composition (of the likes of John Cage), but he also worked with more traditional jazz material on albums like In the Tradition.  And that has remained his mode of operation since–drifting back and forth between the twin poles of traditional jazz and avant-garde composition.  But does that constitute a “crossover”?  It would seem most of the time the answer is no.  But Five Pieces 1975 and some other Arista recordings do make strides at crossing the divide between traditional jazz and modern composition, achieving a new synthesis of both within a given piece.  It seems for that reason it manages to be one of his best efforts.

The success of Five Pieces 1975 certainly has a lot to do with the superb band surrounding Braxton.  They are up to the challenge of each piece and every performer is a match for the next.  There is a balance achieved between them that  evidences a complete mastery of both the compositional elements and the more liberal improvisational sensibilities at work.  If the album could be improved, it would be to replace “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with something like “Opus 40P” or even “Maple Leaf Rag” from Duets 1976 to add more variety.  But then again, why tamper.

Musicians labeled “prolific” are usually also saddled with the label “inconsistent”, if nothing else due to the almost inherent lack of editorial decisions to provide some kind of focus.  Anthony Braxton is saddled with both those labels, as well as the one calling his music “difficult”.  Yet through the years he’s also managed to do some things the “jazz-industrial complex” (his term, like the military-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex) doesn’t normally allow.  Thanks largely to a source of income teaching in later years, he has managed to keep writing and recording challenging works without giving up on his mellower, more lyrical and accessible impulses.  He has also managed to come about as close to being a household name as any modern jazz musician since Coltrane’s era (apart from certain members of the Marsalis family and a few pop musicians masquerading as jazz artists).  So aside from his purely musical contributions, which are indeed numerous, he has presented an image of jazz that contrasts with the accepted one.  That may be his most enduring achievement.  It means that there will be more than one path forward.

David Bowie – The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974

The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974

David BowieThe Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 Virgin 7243 8 21849-2 8 (1997)


If there was ever a single rock star who epitomized the dawn of the modern rock era, it would have to be David Bowie.  This collection of his glam rock works from 1969-74 is quite nice.  But aside from being an absolute blast to hear, there is something to be said for the significance of David Bowie.  He really jumps into the spotlight in the post-’68 time frame.  That shouldn’t be slogged off to mere coincidence.  Compare Bowie’s 1973 version of The Rolling Stones‘ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (originally released in 1967).  For the Stones, the song was something edgy for its time, but still held back.  For an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s American TV show, the Stones had to change the words to “let’s spend some time together.”  In just six-and-a-half years, Bowie’s version is a sweaty, breathy explosion of sexuality.  It’s that, plus Bowie’s persona is that of a high-heeled, jump-suited, make-up wearing, androgynous space creature.   Who would have envisioned that back when Elvis could only be shown on TV from the waist up?  Before ’68 Bowie’s look and sound would not have rocketed him to the top of the charts, it would have put him in position to be lynched.  Here was something out in the open that would have never been permitted just a few years earlier.  While Bowie had nothing to do with that social transformation, he encapsulates how those changes embodied themselves in music and popular culture.  He sort of perfectly represented how someone could step into the whole new territory that had opened up.  What made him the best, though, was that he made it all seem so genuine.

In his early phase, as in later phases, Bowie was mashing up different styles.  In much the same way photographer Robert Mapplethorpe would cross art deco formalism with taboo gay subculture, Bowie would take something like early rock and roll and doo-wop of the ’50s and add camp (i.e., a gay subtext).  This was the case with the likes of “Changes” (1971), the 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Drive-in Saturday” (1973) and the B-side leftover “Velvet Goldmine” (1975).  Then “Ziggy Stardust” and “Rock & Roll Suicide” from 1972’s breakout success The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars blended 1960s urban folk with the bombast of rock opera.  When he was at his best, as he was throughout the entire 1970s, these mash-ups could work wonderfully.  His seemingly heartfelt interest in the various styles carried everything to new heights that were more than just the sum of the parts–later in his career he tended to be more of a hanger-on following whatever fad or trend was in fashion as the “new thing” that year.  Of course, his experiments didn’t always work even when he was in his prime.  Most of his early albums feature a lot of undeniably great songs.  Yet those same albums can feel weighted down by some mediocre material.  The albums as a whole, however good, never fully live up to the commanding heights of the few best individual songs they feature (it was in the late ’70s in his “Berlin” phase that Bowie turned out his very best album-length statements).  In some ways that’s an unfairly high standard to match.  But it holds true.  It also points toward a compilation like this.  On this you get the highlights without anything to bring you down.  Sure, it’s not complete.  “Queen Bitch” from Hunky Dory is missed.  Some tracks might be called superfluous.  “Space Oddity” is not really the necessity most Bowie comps make it out to be.  Still, this collection may still be about the best available option for exploring his early career.  The more mature themes and new stylistic turns of his next period in 1975-79 are summarized on the arguably even better companion set The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979–consider The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 to be a low priority as it marks Bowie’s decline and separation from relevance.

Big Star – #1 Record

#1 Record

Big Star#1 Record Ardent ADS-2803 (1972)


Big Star’s debut, distributed by Stax no less, was a watershed event for pop music. This would be a little hard to guess at the time since it only sold maybe 4,000 copies on release.

Disillusioned with phony hit makers The Box Tops, Alex Chilton joined up with Chris Bell (and the group Icewater) to form Big Star. Memphis was certainly known for blending musical styles, but Big star was different. Call it power pop or whatever, it was “experimental” pop music. The group took big catchy melodies and combined them with smooth harmonies. This was not unusual, as British Invasion groups showed a few years before. The difference was the amount of “pop” they could cram into a song. They also used a personal and honest approach. These songs portray everyday life with a complexity and compassion not found elsewhere.

Though Alex Chilton was the big name (simply for coming from The Box Tops) that attracted the most attention, Chris Bell is perhaps the biggest force on #1 Record. Only briefly do the songs touch on the dark insecurities that Chilton later brought out. When they do, it is more of a recollection of times passed. Here, Bell conveys hope and perseverance. “My Life Is Right” shows satisfaction. “Watch the Sunrise” is triumphant in telling of the future success. Bell brings in some religion on the brilliant “the Ballad of El Goodo” and more explicitly on “Try Again.” Again, the beauty lies in the complexity of the emotions. “Thirteen” is about innocent teenage romance but it speaks only of timeless hopes that still remain.

The emphasis on acoustic guitars and smooth vocals is unique to the group’s debut. There is an “indie rock” kind of feel. It’s natural. #1 Record also has enough personal recollection and noble aspirations to make the material meaningful. Big Star had a vision of the world that is easy to accept.  It is real, honest, and fun.

#1 Record was the last effort to really include Chris Bell. After the record’s commercial failure, the group split up. They did reform (actually multiple times), but Alex Chilton took control of the band. Bell turned suicidal and largely due to artistic differences did not take any credit for some contributions to the group’s second album. Big Star consistently released brilliant material but met stiff commercial opposition. Such a situation (think Vincent Van Gogh) is hard to take. Bell spiraled out of control, and died in a car wreck a few years later (recording just one solo album, posthumously released over a decade after his death). Alex Chilton alternated between heavy drinking and a solo career. But Big Star, especially on #1 Record, always sounded right.

Stax may have been failing, but groups like Big Star and Black Nasty proved there was great music still to be made — even if only on the fringes.

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main ST

Exile on Main ST

The Rolling StonesExile on Main ST Rolling Stones Records COC 69100 (1972)


A sprawling thing, Exile On Main ST runs through blues, county, gospel, soul and rock with reckless abandon. Exile is a stellar affirmation of American music, strangely enough coming from some boys from the U.K.

Most of the album writhes in murk (akin to Sly & the Family’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On). Jagger’s vocals sound muffled. Half the time you can’t hear a damn thing he sings. “I Just Want to See His Face” sounds like you stumbled onto some backwoods gospel revival tearing through what turns out to be an anti-gospel song. Jagger moans in front of some backup singers who scream passionately but seem caught on record only by chance. That mystique of careless luck gives Exile its grandeur. The entire album stays true to its desire for unrefined expression.

This is basically the most important Stones album. It would be hard to predict the Stones would have done anything in the 70s after they kicked founder Brian Jones out of the band (and Jones died shortly thereafter). Mick Taylor finds himself settled into the band, finally. His slide guitar works magic on the masterpiece of uncontrollable longing and charismatic bombast “All Down the Line.”

Backup singers belt out harmonies behind Jagger with horns blasting in a fever. Even Billy Preston stretches out for a guest spot on organ and piano on “Shine A Light.” Every piece of Exile comes together.

None of the individual songs achieved quite the popularity of earlier hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” because they are so uniformly brilliant. The album is still greater than the sum of its magnificent parts. Battered losers and hopeless wrecks parade through honky-tonks and the open road, holding on to what they can. Like the Fellini-esque Robert Frank photo collage on the album jacket, freaks stand placed in a precarious kind of order. When you see a song named “Soul Survivor,” you can hardly take the Stones’ word that they in fact “survived.” Rather, listening to the song reveals they barely made it this time (and may not the next). It’s easy to identify with the characters’ endless attempts to find compassion.

Rebellion is a prerequisite for rock and roll. The German artist Joseph Beuys said art is the science of freedom. In the Twentieth Century at least, the pursuit of freedom necessarily involved the rebel attitude so deeply ingrained in the fabric of rock and roll. The Rolling Stones certainly did their part. They always slid in some raunchy songs that chipped away at the establishment. “Loving Cup” and “Rocks Off” are sleazier tunes than they appear and reveal much more than idle ramblings of libertines. Their vices haunt them as they search for something to hold onto. They testify to the simple joys of common failures. You also have the deconstructionist spin of English boys redefining the musical traditions of another land. The Stones carried with the basic ideals of American music while they wandered into new territory.

An album of this breadth and consistency is a rare thing indeed. Exile is never too polished. It is at the same time familiar and new. It seems so real because the results are so fragile.