Picking your favorite Beach Boys song can be like picking your favorite child: impossible and, ultimately, unfair. With a catalog so musically varied, it’s easier to choose a shortlist from each era, or a favorite period of the band. Nevertheless, the REBEAT staffers attempted the impossible and came up with eight of our favorite Beach Boys songs.
1) “I Can Hear Music” (1969)
Picked by: Rick
Considering that we’re talking about the Beach Boys here, just narrowing down a list to my 10 favorite songs can be a nearly impossible task. Yet from the start I knew my top choice would be “I Can Hear Music,” despite the fact that it is not one of their best known hits, nor one of their highest charters (it stalled at #24 on the pop charts). Adding insult to injury, considering all the great songs Brian Wilson wrote, it isn’t even one of his! Written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector, “I Can Hear Music” was originally recorded by the Ronettes in 1966, though their version stalled at #100. All things considered, it was an odd choice for a Beach Boys’ single release, an anachronism in 1969’s turbulent musical scene. But Carl Wilson’s lead vocal is absolutely beautiful, the group’s harmonies never sounded better, and I don’t know how else to explain it but to say the song has an air of tranquility about it. And it only seems to improve with age.
2) “Surf’s Up” (1966/1971)
Picked by: Sally
I’m writing this blurb on my 30th birthday, so it’s only fitting that the song about age and transition is the one I’ve been listening to more than any other. Originally recorded in 1966 during the sessions for the ill-fated album SMiLE, “Surf’s Up” trades the Beach Boys’ earlier poppy tunes about surf, fun, and cars for wide-eyed creative ambition and deep experimentation. (The title can be read as a play on words — the band bidding farewell to its surfing image.) But while “Surf’s Up” reflects Brian Wilson’s increasing maturity in composition and arrangements, it still retains the Beach Boys’ characteristic youthful vitality. The lyrics (written by Van Dyke Parks) paint an impressionistic portrait of adulthood, or at least what a child imagines of it: a sophisticated world of velvet, diamonds, and marble; a night at the opera; a New Year’s Eve party, where the guests can drink wine and stay up all night if they want. Nevertheless, little glimpses of youth manage to intrude, whether it’s quotes from “Frère Jacques” (“are you sleeping?”) or a reference to the collapse of the old world (“columnated ruins domino,” rendered in a heartbreakingly pure schoolboy falsetto).
In the song’s second section, the rich sonic texture of the early verses subdues into a piano-based meditation, shaded with the pain of adulthood. The song presents “a broken man, too tough to cry,” and advises him to “join the young,” which seems to do the trick: “I heard the world / wonderful thing / a children’s song.” When “Surf’s Up” was overdubbed and finally released on its namesake album in 1971, it gained a third act inspired by another SMiLE remnant, “Child is Father of the Man.” This section’s exquisite multitracked harmonies give “Surf’s Up” its climax — an immersive depiction of the adult surrendering himself to childlike bliss. I’ve always loved the ambition and beauty of “Surf’s Up,” but having started a new decade of my life, I’m also moved by its plea to stay young, even as I grow older.
3) “I Get Around” (1964)
Picked by: John
When summer finally comes, or whenever it feels like I’m trapped in a cold and merciless tundra, I pop in this tune. To me, this is the Beach Boys’ best song because of its excellent and fast instrumentation and the amazing combined vocals of all the members.
4) “God Only Knows” (1966)
Picked by: Sarah
Pet Sounds was one of those albums in my parents’ collection that made a big impression on me when I was a kid, so whenever I think of the Beach Boys, this is usually what I go to first. “God Only Knows” is, for me, one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. Each time I hear it, it’s like listening to it for the first time. The lyrics are brilliant, but the instrumentation is even better. And, as ever, the harmonies are simply divine.
5) “All Summer Long” (1964)
Picked By: Gretchen
Throughout my sophomore year of high school, I was completely addicted to the American Graffiti soundtrack, and this song was a big part of that. Not only was it the ideal tune to end one of my favorite movies, but it perfectly captures the feeling of a carefree summer, when you had nothing to do but relax and hang out with friends. Hearing this song always takes me back to the great summers I spent with my family on the West Coast when I was a teenager (though “West Coast” in my case meant Oregon, rather than Southern California). In my opinion, “All Summer Long” is the best example of why the Beach Boys’ early work, though not quite as “artistic” as Pet Sounds and the like, was still so effective. The catchy melodies, combined with the lyrics’ detailed images, have the power to instantly transport you to a sunnier, happier place that you wish you could really visit.
6) “Good Vibrations” (1966)
Picked by: Jim
There’s a lot to be said about the song, most of it hyperbolic, and most of that deserved. Yes, it did popularize a lot of the bigger motifs in psychedelic music from the 1960s and got to a few places first to introduce most American listeners to what would make up a major portion of music the rest of the decade would give us. Yes, the last time a composer assembled that many pieces together into a single unified composition, Gustav Holst had seven movements for The Planets, and both his work and Brian Wilson’s are just as profound. Yes, the song did more for the theremin than even the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet ever could have, and may have given it another few decades of life in the US. And yes, even after that period in the 1980s when Sunkist abused the song for its ad campaigns, it still demands attention as a quality composition that cannot be dismissed.
7) “Sloop John B” (1966)
Picked by: Emma
Being an adaptation of a traditional West Indies folk song, this song has a long and storied history which eventually resulted in the Beach Boys version. The folk piece it was based on was included in a 1927 collection of folk songs and covered by the Kingston Trio in 1958. But my love of this song is based partly on my memories of being a bored 16-year-old singing this song on slow days at work… heck, I still do it!
8) “Don’t Worry Baby” (1964)
Picked by: Allison
As far back as I can remember, “Don’t Worry Baby” has always been the Beach Boys song that gives me pause. Maybe because when I was first properly introduced to the band via the 1995 compilation CD The Greatest Hits — Volume 1: 20 Good Vibrations, this song was the only one that demanded my attention as I played the album endlessly during my summers off from school. Even now, as I’ve delved into the band’s catalog, explored the sonic highs and lows of their otherworldly harmonies, I still return to this song as my favorite. Written as a reaction (and would-be follow up) to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” it’s the iconic drumbeat intro inspired by its predecessor that causes my heart to drop into my stomach, no matter if I’m at home listening to the record or on the subway scrolling through a Spotify playlist. Depending on the day, my mood, or what I’m doing, this song is guaranteed to make me dance, sing along, or cry; every time I hear it, it’s that powerful. Its lyrics are a reminder that, whether or not you’re heading off to a dangerous drag race like the protagonist or dealing with worries and stresses about everyday life, as long as you remember love, “everything will turn out all right.”