Growing up, the Beach Boys were always in the background. Besides their ubiquity on TV and movie soundtracks—not to mention oldies radio—my dad had played in a Beach Boys-inspired outfit called the Slough Boys (named after a stagnant body of water in their hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa), and their two 45s from 1964, “Surfin’ on Cedar Lake” and “Fried Chicken Baby,” were framed and hung in the hallway. Every so often my dad would even bust out one of those tunes on the guitar or the piano.
But I resisted. The Beach Boys weren’t witty and cool like the Beatles or sexy and dangerous like the Rolling Stones. They were “cheesy.” It probably didn’t help that during my adolescence an adulterated form of the Beach Boys, minus the late Wilson brother, Dennis, and the living genius one, Brian, would show up on Full House and sing with Uncle Jesse.*
It was only in college, when I first heard—or, at least, first really listened to—“Don’t Worry Baby” and “In My Room” and “God Only Knows,” that their songs hit me with an emotional force that the tunes by their British contemporaries never had. Here were three brothers—plus a cousin and a friend, but it was mostly, for me, about those three brothers—singing about the sad and happy sides of life in suburban America. Sure, their America had more beaches than mine, and much bigger waves, and they were really into cars, whereas I never even learned how to drive. But all their songs were really about growing up, or not growing up, and how the world, from their basically adolescent vantage point, was scary and uncertain.
Now the Beach Boys are back, sort of. Carl and Dennis Wilson will never be back, but Brian has made up with his cousin, Mike Love, and gone out on tour. You can hear two singles from their new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, online. But if, like my teenaged self, you think of the Beach Boys as cheesy, don’t start with those tunes. Instead, try out the ten below. They’re not necessarily the ten best Beach Boys songs, but they are ten of the best, and they trace the Beach Boys’ career from the early ’60s to the early ’70s, when they put out their last great records.
A few notes on the choices:
“Surfer Girl” was probably the first Beach Boys song I loved, but “In My Room” may be Brian Wilson’s most nakedly emotional song, so I went with the latter. “I Get Around” struck me as the perfect early contrast.
If I had to pick a favorite from the ten, it would come down to “Don’t Worry Baby” and “God Only Knows,” and I might choose the latter. Though the third vocalist on the song, joining Carl and Brian Wilson, is Bruce Johnston, I like to think of this tune as sung both by and for the three Wilson brothers. (“God Only Knows” is unusual among Beach Boys hits in having just three vocal parts.)
While it may look absurd to have as many songs from Surf’s Up as from Pet Sounds, the final pair are meant to stand in for all the good post-“Good Vibrations” work the Beach Boys did—they just happen to be from the same album. “Feel Flows” is the only song on here not written at least partly by Brian Wilson: It’s by Carl and the producer Jack Reiley, and it may be the best example of the Beach Boys in their late ’60s/early ’70s hippie-dippie mode.
“’Til I Die,” meanwhile is pure Brian: He called it “perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for the Beach Boys.” In fact, it is one of the only Beach Boys songs written entirely by him, both music and lyrics. And those lyrics: “I’m a cork on the ocean / Floating over the raging sea / How deep is the ocean? / How deep is the ocean? / I lost my way / Hey hey hey.”
You can listen to all the songs on Spotify, or find them on YouTube and Amazon: “In My Room,” Surfer Girl (1963); “I Get Around,” All Summer Long (1964); “Don’t Worry Baby,” Shut Down Volume 2 (1964); “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” Today! (1965); “California Girls,” Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) (1965); “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” Pet Sounds (1966); “Good Vibrations,” Smiley Smile (1967); “Feel Flows” and “’Til I Die,” Surf’s Up (1971)
* This post originally stated that Carl Wilson did not appear on Full House. He did.