The Beach Boys are nothing if not the great American summer band. Lockdown conditions or not, we’re finally entering the best time of year to blast familiar classics such as “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “California Girls,” and, yes, even “Kokomo.”
But The Beach Boys’ greatest hits tell only part of their sprawling story. The other side is a tangle of commercial disappointments, artistic misfires, and years spent laboring in the wilderness of popular music or hanging on as a legacy act. It’s a story you can’t grasp without dipping into the band’s many lesser-known records, especially those like “20/20,” “Sunflower,” “Holland,” and others that were released in the fascinating, though still frustrating, period between 1967 and 1977.
Below is a list of likable deep cuts and non-hits from that era and beyond. It doesn’t cover every stage of The Beach Boys’ career, blessedly so, but it does show both the depth and variety of their catalog. The Beach Boys are one of the greatest bands ever, but they’re far more interesting than the casual fan might know.
‘Lonely Sea’ (‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’)
A precursor to melancholy classics such as “In My Room” and an exquisite ballad in its own right, “Lonely Sea” signaled early that Brian Wilson was an artist of the plaintive, solitary life.
‘Please Let Me Wonder’ (‘The Beach Boys Today!’)
Take your pick from side two of “The Beach Boys Today!” “Please Let Me Wonder” is a masterpiece, “Kiss Me, Baby” and “She Knows Me Too Well” aren’t far behind, and the heavenly cover of “I’m So Young” will almost convince you teenage romance is the highest form of love. The intricacy and emotional vulnerability of these songs helped set the stage for “Pet Sounds.”
‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ (‘Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!]’)
Even by Beach Boys standards, “Girl Don’t Tell Me” contains some pretty dorky details. When did the boy and girl of this thwarted romance first cross paths? Last summer, when he was staying with his grandma. What went wrong? She didn’t respond to his letters. The lack of guile screams out.
Yet the band doesn’t play down to the wide-eyed premise. Handling the lead vocal without the help of any backing parts, Carl Wilson gives a wonderfully natural performance that meshes well with the song’s chiming, “Ticket to Ride”-inspired sound. It’s a Beach Boys specialty: serious care and craftsmanship in the service of innocence.
‘Little Bird’ (‘Friends’)
You know that moment in a movie or TV show when a character who seems to be all looks is revealed as much more than a mere caricature? For Dennis, long the handsome but artistically undistinguished Wilson brother, that happened on 1968’s “Friends,” the highlight being his ruminative and whimsical “Little Bird.”
Co-written by poet Stephen Kalinich, “Little Bird” finds Dennis musing about the wonders of the natural world against a backdrop of shifting textures and colors. It’s by turns relaxed and goofy, psychedelic and baroque — efficient work for a song that’s only two minutes long.
‘Time to Get Alone’ (‘20/20’)
“Time to Get Alone” doesn’t lack for strong points. There’s the lilting style, the lush vocal arrangement, the tender emotions, and even the spasmodic surprise that lies in wait on the bridge. Ultimately, though, all you need to know is that Carl had the voice of an angel. The word “pure” comes to mind.
‘All I Wanna Do’ (‘Sunflower’)
If you listen to only one song on this list, make it “All I Wanna Do.” It’s among the coolest, most absorbing tracks The Beach Boys ever recorded. Dreamy, soothing, and soaked in echo, “All” possesses that rare quality of feeling, like a place you want to go rather than just a collection of sounds and words.
Major kudos to Mike Love, frequently the object of derision among Beach Boys fans, for delivering perhaps the best vocal of his career. Love has compiled a lengthy record of sullen and combative behavior, but here he plays the role of a gentle healer.
‘Til I Die’ and ‘Surf’s Up’ (‘Surf’s Up’)
1971’s “Surf’s Up” concludes with a striking pair of classics, the power of which is only enhanced by the marked contrast between the songs. One is forthright and nakedly personal, the other diffuse and esoteric. One is about staring into the abyss, while the other loosely ponders civilizational collapse and spiritual rebirth. One features heavy lyrics such as “I lost my way” and “It kills my soul.” The other paints a mysterious scene of “columnated ruins” and “dove-nested towers.” One is Brian Wilson being very Brian Wilson. The other is Van Dyke Parks, Brian’s co-writer on “Smile,” being very Van Dyke Parks. Both, however, are gorgeous in a way that only Beach Boys songs seem to be.
If you identify as a “greatest hits” Beach Boys fan, “Steamboat” might throw you for a loop. A massive gulf exists between the summer classics and aching ballads of the band’s signature era and the cryptic rock of this cut from 1973’s “Holland.” The Beach Boys were a much different band after Carl supplanted Brian as “musical director,” especially with the addition of South African musicians Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar in 1971.
Helmed by Carl, “Steamboat” is unhurried and soulful, hypnotic and trippy. It conveys the feeling of lazily drifting down a river, but with just enough murkiness to keep the tone ambiguous. The vaulting guitar solo that arrives halfway through is a similar mix of blissed-out vibes and enigmatic undercurrents. It’s a strange but riveting track.
If “Steamboat” doesn’t suit your tastes, give the appropriately titled “Funky Pretty” a spin.
‘Mona’ (‘The Beach Boys Love You’)
What’s not to love about “Mona”? It’s a delirious Phil Spector homage, complete with name-drops of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” and the “Wall of Sound” innovator himself, who was one of Brian’s main influences. It’s zany, energetic, and seriously catchy. It charges out of the gate and will have you hooked after about four seconds. The song showcases Dennis in all his gravelly voiced glory. This two minutes of frothy, frivolous joy will embed the words “discotheque mama” in your memory bank.
‘Summer’s Gone’ (‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’)
It would be fitting if “Summer’s Gone,” the closer on the most recent and perhaps final Beach Boys record, ended up as the band’s farewell to the world. The name says it all.
Written and sung by Brian, “Summer’s Gone” is an elegiac ballad about the passage of time and the impermanence of life’s graces. The tone is serious, the performance is heartfelt, and the message is appropriate from a group with a half-century of dramatic peaks and valleys to its name, including Dennis and Carl’s premature deaths and Brian’s harrowing personal struggles. If The Beach Boys never record again, their career won’t lack a moving send-off.