For those who know only the uptempo beach music, the fact that the group even recorded anything else can come as a surprise. For those who have heard Pet Sounds, oftentimes the music might as well have ended there. But for those who judge each Beach Boys album on it's own merits, going through their discography is an exciting adventure where the genius of Brian and at times other members struggles to stand out against group infighting that threatens to bring out the worst of everyone. Beyond the sixties, the group can hardly be called consistent. Which makes it even more fun to go through their work and see what hit the mark. With no further ado, THE BEACH BOYS:
Surfin Safari (1962): This one has the Beach Boys' first two singles: "Surfin" and "Surfin' Safari", only the latter of which is particularly good. "Surfin" was the first song they ever recorded and while it certainly had pure novelty appeal at the time, it does not stand up against the Boys' later work. Similarly, most of the songs here like "County Fair", "Ten Little Indians" and "Cuckoo Clock" are novelty songs and filler, far more filler than on later releases. The two great songs here are "Surfin' Safari" and "409" which almost save the album. Anyone can skip this album and just listen to those two and be none the worse for it. Though "Safari" hints at Brian's later genius he clearly hadn't matured as a songwriter at 20 (haha I'm 20). Mostly pretty bad.
Surfin' USA (1963): This sophomore attempt is miles ahead of their first one. Perhaps an OCEAN ahead. Yes, this one is more focused on surfing, not Indians or fairs or clocks. There's even a cover of Dick Dale's "Misirlou". The eponymous single is a cover of a Chuck Berry song with new lyrics, played beautifully with a killer organ solo by Brian. But for me the highlight here is "Farmer's Daughter", with a slower tempo which shows us the beginnings of what's to come on Surfer Girl with an absolutely beautiful choirboy delivery against a perfectly bouncy surf groove. The rest of the tracks hold their own for the most part and this is a great starting point for this band.
Surfer Girl (1963): The band's first masterpiece. Here the speedier surf rockers are set nicely against smooth ballads like "Surfer Girl" and "In My Room", the latter of which deserves a spot on Pet Sounds as much as anything, as Brian's first exploration of adolescent stress and loneliness. But even "Hawaii" is as well done as a surfing song can be with the backing vocals designed perfectly for each part. "Catch A Wave" is similarly well-crafted. It's at the level of their later output even if it's not their best album. Though if surfing really IS your bag, baby, this may be the best album you'll ever come accross. The only thing that stops it from being a 10 is the instrumental "Boogie Woodie" which while not terrible is an unnecessary distraction from the other tracks.
Little Deuce Coupe (1963): Three albums in one year. Yes, they were that prolific, creating music faster than anyone today. However, the creative juices might have been wearing off as for perhaps the only time the band reused FOUR songs including "409" and "Shut Down". This makes some sense as the concept for the album was to create some sort of compilation of the songs the band had made about cars, with new material recorded as well. "409" is the only good car song the band ever made besides "This Car of Mine" from the next record, and the new material especially fails to impress. The only great on the album is "Be True to Your School" which is a lovely if kitschy earworm. Even that isn't really unskippable and the car theme really relegates the whole thing to a dead end of an idea that never went anywhere (thank god they never released another car album). I'd say don't come back to this until you've heard every other Beach Boys song, every one of which is undoubtedly more worthy of your time.
Shut Down, Volume 2 (1964): No, I'm not reviewing Volume 1 here. Shut Down, Volume 1 was a compilation album from Capitol Records which featured that song. So it's possible Murray Wilson, the band's then-manager, father to three of them and infamous arsehole suggested this name 8 months after to capitalize on that record's success. He also caused David Marks to quit the band, Marks being a friend and member to the boys I didn't mention earlier because he quit in '64. Thanks Murray. To get to the actual album, there are two great tracks here, "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Don't Worry Baby" and the rest is pure filler. OBVIOUS filler. "Denny's Drums" is a drum solo track that my friend Mridul and I used to mock often for it's inclusion here. There are skits, there are covers, and there are instrumentals like the eponymous track which doesn't do anything to stand out. "The Warmth of the Sun" is good but crosses the line from heavenly to sleepy. The obvious recommendation to make here is to skip everything but the songs I mentioned and maybe "This Car of Mine". But it is almost worth listening to the whole thing for the filler, most of which isn't bad and some of which is just funny that they included it. Like the song "Fun, Fun, Fun", suggests, this album is good for some if you're in the right mood.
All Summer Long (1964): The Boys were well-established at this point, and there may have been a bit of coasting involved here. On material they'd definitely covered before like "Little Honda" and "Girls on the Beach", they're clearly trying and even producing some of the better material about those topics, but it's easy to imagine Brian playing these songs, many of which Mike Love helped contribute, and starting to get tired of these types of tracks. But Love does flourish with this material, which he clearly had an aptitude for, with his solo contributions like "All Summer Long" being fun and pretty if a little shallow even for an early Beach Boys song. Carl does actually prove himself on "Carl's Big Chance", showing he could crank out a neat solo even if the opportunities to do so were rare. There is one track here, "Our Favorite Recording Sessions", which consists of sessions where the boys messed up or goofed around in a cute wholesome way. I can imagine teen girl fans of the time finding it charming but not too much of the charm survives. Similarly, the charming nature of this album is a little worn at this point and it's the first one without any true highlights to pull it out of the recesses of their catalog. "Little Honda" is nice but only performs well in the chorus. You might find something to hold on to here, but that's more of a testament to your tenacity than the band's.
The Beach Boys Today! (1965): This one ranks a lot higher than Shut Down Volume 2 for me thanks to standouts like "Help Me Rhonda" and "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)". "Do You Wanna Dance?" is a Bobby Freeman song which the Boys perfected and would later be covered by John Lennon and The Ramones. Lyrically, I love this album for finally abandoning the surfing theme, but the music had yet to catch up evolutionarily. This is almost a proto-Pet Sounds in terms of theme and in that way it's the closest to an even compromise between Brian and Mike's ideas of what the band should be. Even if not all the music quite lives up to the potential that sentence promises, this is still a well-done album and not nearly worth skipping. Dennis turns in his first songwriting contribution: a very interesting and ahead-of-it's-time psychadellic ballad called "In the Back of My Mind". It's songs like these that help elevate this album to one of the better ones of the era.
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965): AND A VOICE CALLED OUT "REDO!" It turns out the American public didn't like it when their Beach Boys abandoned the beach on their last album, and so they got right back in their studio and gave the public what they wanted. An album the group felt they HAD to make is never going to be great, and the fact that the best song here ("Help Me, Rhonda") was reused from the ashes of the last album is a telling sign. "Amusement Parks U.S.A." is better than "County Fair" but only because the latter was from their first album when the Boys didn't know what they were doing. "Then I Kissed Her" and "California Girls" are terrific even if the latter is another cover with new lyrics. The rest, however, severely underperforms and sinks the album down to the ocean's depths. It's just boring and uninspired. Let this one drift off into the Great Pacific garbage patch.
Beach Boys' Party! (1965): This ain't just a cover album. It's a super duper fun time cover album in a party atmosphere. At least that's the concept. In reality these were just informal recording sessions over which the Boy's wives were recording having a great time. Even if this knowledge breaks the immersion a bit, you do still feel like you're at a party with The Beach Boys. Many call this a concept album, and the party concept certainly was one that they went to great lengths to accomplish even if in the end all it does is allow them to do some covers (Brian must have been damn tired). The two Beatles and one Bob Dylan cover chosen certainly show a discerning ear by some of the members, and the rest are pretty obvious choices. The concept and the covering of sixties songs IN the sixties make this album sound very modern to our ears (it IS the first "Unplugged" album) and of course "Barbara Ann" deservedly became quite a hit. The delivery grows a little old though so this is far more of an oddity than a worthy Beach Boys album.
Pet Sounds (1966): We made it here, everyone. Shortly after Party, the rest of the band went on tour, leaving Brian to get started on the next album without them. After rearranging an old spiritual, "Sloop John B", that friend and bandmate Al Jardine suggested the band cover, Brian, who had just started experimenting with LSD, recruited Tony Asher to help with lyrics and got to work. The two worked off each other perfectly, with each refining the other's ideas. Soon, a theme began to emerge: the loneliness and isolation of childhood, with Brian's earnest hopefulness shining through some very dark themes for the decade. There was also the idea from the beginning to not include any filler. The two instrumentals here are extremely refined and varied. Though the idea to create an album without filler came from The Beatles' Rubber Soul, listening to Pet Sounds straight through sends the listener through an emotional journey which even the Fab Four was unable to accomplish. For anyone with a fondness for innocence and an appreciation of beauty, the album ranks as the greatest one ever produced by any artist: it even goes toe to toe with classical symphonies in it's scope and scheme and beats them all by variety of instruments, strength of emotion, and undeniably beautiful vocals. "God Only Knows" may be the most beautiful piece ever put to paper, and it only barely stands out against the rest of the tracks here for me. To find a low point is an exercise in futility. "Sloop John B" fits unbelievably well here, despite being written sometime before 1916, and was a major hit. The entire album defies genre musically and spat in the face of anyone who decried surf music by combining elements of it with classical, baroque, pop, and jazz elements. If you only listen to one album in your life, make it this one.
Wow. I try to keep these reviews to one paragraph, but that's as briefly as I could sum up the history of this album. The tale of Smile is one of rock music's greatest legends, but let's address Smiley Smile. First off, "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" are already great albums, just condensed to a few minutes, which is a good start. With the rest of the tracks here, the band knew not to get too elaborate and send Brian into a spiral again so they kept the production minimal and intimate. The problem is when it gets too intimate. Like on "Wonderful" which Brian recorded as a sweet number for Smile but which comes off as one of the creepiest serial killer songs ever recorded the way Carl sings it. None of these are even close to bad though, just misguided, with the worst being "Little Pad" and "She's Goin' Bald" which are just a little too minimal and unfocused. When the group breaks up and corpses, this record becomes Party! on acid. Tracks like "Wind Chimes" are so out there and unsettling that if I ever play them around people I'm asked to leave. But other Smile rejects like "Vegetables" show that even a glimpse at Smile can be incredible, and in a way this album's relative lack of ambition is a blessing. This wasn't what anyone expected from the Boys, and as a follow-up to Pet Sounds it seems incredibly unfocused and almost ugly, but it's just so captivatingly creative and interesting that it's an absolute classic after one listen. As a masterpiece it failed, but as an album it blew my mind.
Wild Honey (1967): We're on album 13 and still not halfway through, haha. But Smiley Smile was definitely the hardest to review, to the extent I dreaded it somewhat. Wild Honey is no failed masterpiece. Even though they thankfully didn't return to the surfing themes, here The Beach Boys' did pull back from the type of psychadelic experimentation they got into on their last two records. Here the group created, of all things, a soul album! Or something! The constant organ and thumping bass certainly pointed towards soul, but the return of the "Good Vibrations" standout theremin on "Wild Honey" and simple country guitar on "I'd Love Just Once to See You" makes it seem like this album was it's own thing. Regardless of genre, the important thing is that the album was certainly focused, and featured catchy hooks and upbeat tempos that seemed destined to dominate the charts. Yet it became The Beach Boys' lowest-selling album of all time. That's insane! "Wild Honey" and "Aren't You Glad" are so fun and inviting, as well as soulful, it's impossible to stop dancing to them. The delivery on these tracks are never weak, as the Boys could be occasionally vocally, but explosive. "I Was Made to Love Her" and "Darlin'" knock it out of the park too. The rest is more subdued, but "Country Air" and "I'd Love Just Once to See You" are so beautiful and showcase the type of wonderful songwriting Brian was capable of post-Smile. The last four tracks here, however, dissapoint a bit. "Here Comes the Night" is a great song that Brian may not have been the best singer to perform, and which musically sounds less forceful than it should. "Let the Wind Blow" sounds weak and lacking effort, especially against Side One. Carl sounds like a teenager on coke on "How She Boogalooed It". "Mama Says" was originally a section from "Vegetables"... which was bad enough not to use. For some reason that's it's own track. While those last four lessen the impact, this is a fantastic and inspired album that blows away the band's earliest releases, even if it's not the typical Beach Boys album.
Friends (1968): More transcendental than psychadelic, this album marked a low point for record sales for the band. This seems countered, though, by how much fun the boys were clearly having on these tracks. Brian was "Busy Doing Nothing" and remembering good times with Mike on the eponymous "Friends" and Love co-wrote "Transcendental Meditation" about this cool new thing all the 'delic rockers were getting into. While the mood here is so relaxed it can be kind of irritating when a song doesn't really go anywhere ("Transcendental" and "Busy), it still doesn't deserve the low rating it gets from critics and fans. While it's not quite Wild Honey and not nearly Pet Sounds, they make it sound like it crashed harder than the stock market in '29. Brian wrote some great songs like the infectiously cheery "Be Here in the Mornin'" which employs the most feminine falsetto this side of male castration. Meanwhile Dennis of all people came in with only his second writing credit ever and created "Little Bird", a smorgasbord of musicality that ranges from depressed backwoods soul to uppity Splash Mountain-style country jammin'. The rest of the album lags a little behind those contributions, but still succeeds in creating a chilled-out LSD mood, especially on tracks like "Passing By" which seems every bit a response to The Beatles' "Flying". So what if this isn't the Beach Boys we all know. If that's what you want, why not jut buy some greatest hits crapola. Or even better, just slap Brian Wilson in the face. The music here is relaxed but still wonderfully creative, and worth a listen.
20/20 (1969): In almost opposite of Friends, 20/20 went No. 3 in the UK (thanks in part to the "Do It Again" single), but I find it to be quite bad. While "Do It Again" is a fine song and would've been a hit no matter when they released it, the beat is way too electronic and seems like a misguided attempt to modernize the track, like a club remix of itself. Although electronic beats were still quite new in '69, so maybe it was cooler then. Looking at the rest of the tracks, though, many of them are good but the album doesn't meld. "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" is staggeringly good, and "I Can Hear Music" is the perfect combo of beauty and danceability, and sixth member Bruce Johnston, the oft-forgotten, wrote his first song for the band, a lovely Brian-ripoff instrumental called "The Nearest Faraway Place"- though "Be With Me" is an absolute nothing of a song (sorry, Dennis, you're great but not as reliably as Brian). As would become more common, though, side two of this record is immensely better, as Brian gets to take over. He engages in his favorite pastime of arranging old spirituals for the band with "Cotton Fields", and reuses the unused Smile compositions "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence", the latter of which is hauntingly beautiful in an unparalleled way that only a few Brian songs are (prime examples being "God Only Knows", parts of "Heroes and Villains", and some others we'll get to later). "I Went to Sleep" and "Time to Get Alone" are direct continuations of the Friends style but don't make much impact. "Never Learn Not to Love" was written by Charles Manson, and, uh, it's pretty good. It's definitely creepy though much less so than if Charles had sang it. So while there are no songs I hate here, I still can't rate the album too highly. It's not one that I actually recommend to people after they've consumed Pet Sounds. Still, there's no real reason to skip it- "Do It Again" will hit the mark with many, and side two will delight Brian fans. There are great tracks here mixed in, though on a whole 20/20 underwhelms.
Sunflower (1970): The seventies have arrived! Yes, The Beatles were splitzo, but the Boys would still go strong for a couple albums until Brian hit some hard times (and you'll find that even then the music wasn't that bad). This album is Friends refined, with some Wild Honey mixed in. The band isn't afraid to let their new hippy identity shine. "Cool, Cool Water" is one of my absolute favorite cut Smile tracks and perfectly captures the feeling of swimming on LSD, I'm guessing. Also, it makes me thirsty. Bruce Johnston KNOCKS IT OUT THE PARK with "Deidre", though that's a bit overdramatic for a song this effortlessly cool and sweet- those flutes, man! "This Whole World" and "Add Some Music to Your Day" are hippy-dippy Brian tracks, but the real news here is that Dennis wrote A FULL THIRD of this album. 4 out of 12 songs. While "Slip On Through"'s verses don't thrill me, that hook hits hard and Dennis hits those notes strong and soulful indeed. "Got to Know the Woman" has soul too, but it's more generic, almost blandly so. "It's About Time" sounds like the first 70's cop show theme song, with some musical theater thrown in, and it actually really works. And "Forever", which would come to be known well for John Stamos' rendition of it on Full House, is undeniably beautiful, and perhaps more to the public's taste than Brian's similar work. Wow! Who knew Dennis was capable of all that! Though it underperformed at the time, with Dennis' help the group had created one of the greatest enduring rock albums of all time. It's an absolute delight and comes close to being the band's greatest in my opinion.
Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" (1972): Well! This is emotionally jarring. Yeah, it's weird listening to all these in a row. I hope you try it though. Hey, why the heck is "Carl and the Passions" in the title? Aw, well it's a bit of a joke but that is an old name the boys used in high school and here it's used to evoke the classic rock sound of this record. Each song here is pure rock 'n' roll, many enfusing funk and soul and in other ways changing the formula- usually for the better. This was a trying time for Brian and he contributed little, which is considerable when he used to write everything. But the band got two new members: the young (21) South African crooner and guitarist Blondie Chaplin of The Flames, and Indian-passing but also South African Ricky Fataar, also of The Flames, but who would go on to be in The Rutles, the ultimate Beatles clone. They added a lot of genuine rock energy to the band but the approach is still a little off to me. The soul here is quality, and the country twang on "Hold On, Dear Brother" is endearing. A little less so on "He Come Down" though. The airy, open "All This Is That" is unique in just how heavenly it is while still having that slight soul/rock edge. "Marcella" and "You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone" are quite a bit harder than almost anything on The Beach Boys' discography, and it's interesting to see their approach to that hard blues music. While it's not as bad as many make it out to be, this was still the beginning of the end and it shows. None of the tracks except maybe "All This Is That" are as inspired as they could be, and nothing really hits home here. A letdown of an album that's still halfway decent.
Holland (1973): Here we have perhaps the last Great Beach Boys album. Just before it died, a bit of genius resurfaced and showed the Boys could put an album together. It starts out with no hesitation, they rock out on "Sail On, Sailor" which is the harder sound of the last album with a bit more of the character I crave. It marked the return of Van Dyke Parks as co-writer, and did fairly well as a single, but the impressive thing is how well it holds up as a classic rocker. In a commercially viable context, it's the furthest thing from what once made the Boys their dough. The album slows down quickly though, and gains a sentimental tone. "The California Saga (Big Sur, The Beaks of Eagles, and California)" all see a conceptual return to the sunny goodness of the Boys' home state, and oddly enough I like Mike Love's country ballad "Big Sur" the best. "The Trader" is a bitingly critical historical song written by Carl which I'm always realizing more about (and thusly adding to the sparse Genius.com page). "Leaving This Town" and "Only With You" are solid ballads, and side two ends with "Funky Pretty" which Mark Prindle called "neither" but I find to be a pretty great soft psychadellic funk track. Brian ends the album by presenting us with a fairy tale he dreamed up called Mount Vernon and Fairway which is included here for some reason. It's narrated by Jack Rieley and the sounds here are pretty cool and experimental. The story's pretty charming and very Magic Flute-esque, with a bit of Brian flair. Overall this is a great melancholy album which looks back at the past pleasingly. The energy of the faster songs is perfectly offset by the ballads which are all well done. A great find, and one of The Beach Boys' best sleeper hits.
15 Big Ones (1976): Yeah... no. The problems here are evident pretty quickly... there's too darn many covers! Who the hell really needs an uninspired Chuck Berry cover as an opener and then "Palisades Park" on side two, which was written by a completely out of it TV show host? These aren't necessarily that bad, but there such by-the-books hard rock 'n' roll covers that there was no point in doing them whatsoever. Get rid of those and "Chapel of Love" and "Talk to Me" (god that "Tallahassee Lassee" addition was purposeless and utterly sucked) and "In the Still of the Night" AND all the other damn covers and what do you have? Five Brian Wilson songs and one by Mike. Yeah, it's less than half... Mike's "Everyone's in Love With You" has the Mike Love ballad of Mike Love being a terrible person to imagine being in a relationship with. The song seems more like devious mind games pulled by a creeper than a charming tale of boyish love. Love co-wrote "It's O.K." (which here I think means he poked Brian with a stick until he wrote some lyrics about surfing again) which despite being an anti-progress surf song again is legitimately fun and a high point here. "Had to Phone Ya" would've been a hit in the thirties or forties for sure but here it's just alright. "That Same Song" is a mundane song about nothing, which was becoming the norm for Brian. "T M Song" has a pretty cool skit and the song has a good moral but the level of hippiness becomes annoying. Finally "Back Home" is more country soul and is alright at that but feels tired and old, though the chorus is still summery and grand. The album ends with "Just Once in My Life" another Phil Spector song which Carl and Brian sound like they're slowly dying on. Ugh. This album is almost completely terrible. "It's O.K." and "Back Home" are fine, the rest is a tiringly slower dirge through classic rock tracks and uninspired new stuff. Don't listen to this if you can avoid it.
The Beach Boys Love You (1977): It's immediately obvious this album is a step up from the last, helped a lot by the complete lack of any covers- Brian had recovered to the point where once again he felt like writing and recording a full album, in classic Pet Sounds or Smile fashion! He had a little help from Mike and Al but basically nil. Of course, Brian's skill had diminished significantly by this point so it's not nearly at the level of those records, but just the conceit here actually makes this album worth listening to. The constant synthy bass is a different sound that can be annoying at times but makes the songs unique and interesting. "Let Us Go On This Way" through "Johnny Carson" are all decent tracks that get you used to this new sound, while the first is a little inspired and nice, the last is a really dumb song about Johnny Carson: "When guests are boring he picks up the slack" and "He speaks in such a manly tone" (haha... no he doesn't)- clearly Brian wanted a smooch from 'ole Johnny. "Good Time" is a really innovative They Might Be Giants-sounding track that was recorded first by Brian's wife's band American Spring. The accordion here and the way the parts line up is really nice, especially for a TMBG fan. "Honkin" is more embarassing 15 Big Ones-style rock, though "Ding Dang" is similar but is so fun and silly it's addictive. "DING DANG WHOO! DING ANNA DING DONG!"... then Brian brings out "Solar System", another kid's song by America's oldest kid. It's actually pretty good for what it is and the synth usage works well. Side two continues with "The Night Was So Young", a really great ballad, and impresses more with "I Bet He's Nice", a cool combination of Pet Sounds themes and the new style. The last four tracks are pretty boring and a bit stupid ("Airplane") but the album still isn't a waste. The sound of it is consistent and new enough to be worth a full listen and the good songs are surprisingly good while some of the lyrics are just too childish- though if you have a tolerance for that stuff (or you have kids) this album's great!
M.I.U. Album (1978): Wow, pretty good! This album might even be in the upper half of Beach Boys records, if only barely. Like the best albums, it starts very strong with "She's Got Rhythm" and "Come Go With Me", though the last four tracks are so weak let's just ignore them. Oh wow, Brian, good idea letting Mike sing "Hey, Little Tomboy"- the creepiest song ever, where Mike and Brian force a little girl to go through puberty and make her wear perfume and cutoff jeans, then... teach her to kiss.... "You're gonna feel just like this" ... oh jesus christ. I was honestly going to try to defend this track but there is no defense here. It's genuinely one of the creepiest, genuinely pedophilic songs out there. MAYBE if it was by a 13-year-old it'd be ok but, uh, no... the music on that track's decent though. Ha-ha-ha. "Kona Coast" was a hit for the Boys and is a great surfin' track which brings back the chorus of "Hawaii". "Peggy Sue" and "Belles of Paris" are expertly done and range through the two extremes of the Boys' early career that they were emulating here. It's a weird album for sure, but still possibly very good.
L.A. (Light Album) (1979): The Boys caught word of disco, people! "Here Comes the Night" is an old track but here it's unrecognizable. It's such a funky Soul Train jam, man do I want a disco ball to drop from the ceiling after the first "HERE COMES THE NIGHT" ends and those bongoes and neat guitar work drop! Talk about transforming a song! I had no idea THIS is what The Beach Boys would come up with when I first heard this! ...Oh yeah, there's an album here too. It's a little stiltedly slow at times, but a certain flavor of the band's inventiveness shines through, a renewed energy is clearly present. "Good Timin'" is decent but sleepy. "Shortenin' Bread" is actually a very good version of the number. "Angel Come Home" actually has a nice mix of Wild Honey-type soulfulness with a raspy Dennis vocal performance, making it sound like an entirely convincing soul funk number. Between that song and "Lady Lynda", which layers a beautiful amount of Pet Sounds reverb over the harpsichord guitar and vocals, the album has a melancholy but strong-willed emotional core that actually gives the listener a bit to reflect on. It would have been a pretty good final album. But you know what you're here for... "Here Comes the Night"! It's ten minutes, so it's almost half the album anyway! Put that track on and dance the night away baby! Oh yeah! Do I make you randy?
Keepin' the Summer Alive (1980): Bruce Johnston's first turn as producer, covering for Brian, and poor Dennis' last appearance on a Beach Boys album. Shame that it had to be this one. Bruce's production isn't the worst but it's not good. Everything sounds too close to the mic and there's no subtlety to the mix (the backing vocals have weird EQ or something too). There's a lot of horns on here but mostly they don't pep up the lifelessness except on "Some of Your Love" which still suffers from production and an odd tempo. It also sounds way too much like "It's O.K." but without the awesome slide guitar. The ballads here do absolutely nothing because of the grey carelessness. And the few other uptempo songs have problems too "School Day" does not need the reverb and the guitar dubs are overproduced and just sounds messy. Overall this is all very messy and uncoordinated. Luckily they dropped Bruce as a producer on the next album. This is Beach Boys at it's worst, there's almost nothing salvageable here. Boo. Down. Over.
The Beach Boys (1985): The Beach Boys had lost a member. This wasn't easy for anyone. But we still have to review the album that in some ways seems like a memorial to him. It's not a great album, but that context softens me on it a bit. It's not nearly as bland as Keepin' the Summer Alive or most of L.A. but as the first digital album something is lost in the process. Not too much though, since the production had been getting more synthetic anyways. A lot of these sound too much like the 80's pop they emulate, especially in the drums and bass (no Dennis to record the drum tracks). "Crack At Your Love" is generic 80's with good harmonies over it. Legendary icon wrote "I Do Love You" for the Boys to use here, and it's certainly a Stevie Wonder song (I don't like his music very much). Soulful enough, I guess. "Passing Friend" was written by Culture Club and no one needs a blander Culture Club. Ugh. "Getcha Back" is the highlight here, as it at least kinda sounds like Beach Boys and has a classic ooh-ing melody at the heart of it. The bonus track "Male Ego" doesn't really count but came with the CD reissue and is one of those passably well-thought-out Brian tracks, which places it higher than everything else here. CBS Records dropped them after this, and you can see why. Not quite their worst, but close.
Still Cruisin' (1989): This "album" is just some greatest hits, three original new recordings, and the "Kokomo" single. "Kokomo" is the Boys' last Number 1 single and it deserves it. The three originals: "Still Cruisin'" is like a combination of "Do It Again" and "Still Crazy After All These Years". Yuck. "Somewhere Near Japan" had some promise, as it could've done something with that Japan theme, but it's more sleepy schlock. "Island Girl" ...who even cares. There are also recent side projects that hadn't been on albums: "Make it Big" is okay and has a nice sax solo. Again, it's badly and overly produced. The Beach Boys released their first foray into rap with the Fat Boys: "Wipe Out" which is actually pretty banging and really fun. Those Beach Boys "ba bow bow"s really make it, and the "Wipe Out" riff over the hip hop beat is cool. I can't give the Boys too much credit though since it's simple stuff really. The Fat Boys SELL IT though and really act like they love The Beach Boys. Maybe they do. Brian is really funny in the music video. The psychopatic "licensed medical doctor" Eugene Landy had taken over Brian's entire life at this point, stealing credit for "In My Car", a Brian song which actually fits in nicely with the classic hits like "I Get Around" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice". It's pretty rockin' and fairly rollin'. You can ignore this album entirely, it's useless, but the previously released singles that are on it are pretty good, check those out. "Kokomo", "Wipe Out", and "In My Car". Ignore the rest.
Summer in Paradise (1993): The band was just Mike and Al's touring monstrosity at this point. Luckily Carl was still alive so it wasn't total crap. Brian didn't contribute anything here, tells you what I think about it. The producer Terry Melcher is crap here, and the bad horn playing is back. John Stamos sings "Forever" on this one, sure, whatever. What's the point? There's nothing notable here. Except notably bad. "Summer of Love" has more "rap"... except it's Mike creepily rap-whispering. WHY. Their Sly and the Family Stone cover is nice to hear. "Island Fever" is mostly just an inferior "Kokomo", similarly they re-recorded "Surfin'" which was much more charming with the simpler arrangement. It's all just lifeless retreading, and Brian was in no shape to contribute anything, so there's not even anything new but silly. It's a real shame to hear such an uninteresting album from one of the biggest innovators of the 60's and even the 70's.
Stars and Stripes Vol.1 (1996): This is only technically a Beach Boys album, and marked their last recorded work until 2012. Recorded shortly before his death, Carl Wilson plays some guitar and sings backup here, but the lead vocals are all guest country musicians. Or country pop, as fits the arrangements here. It's cringe-inducing hearing Toby Keith turn "Be True to Your School" into a stadium rocker with his drawl. It's perfectly fine for a Toby Keith song, though, but even in the grimy nineties the Boys were better than this. T Graham Brown does better with "Help Me, Rhonda" - swinging it and speeding it up, perhaps it's just better because it goes by faster. Most of the songs are somewhere in between those. I like Willie Nelson and "The Warmth of the Sun" works well for him, that rendition is quality. "Don't Worry Baby" is my early-era favorite, and Lorrie Morgan sings it beautifully, good on her. No one else hits that high mark though, and this is ultimately no more than a novelty piece that starts well but descends into unworthy imitation.
That's Why God Made the Radio (2012): They were back. That's what I thought when I caught wind of this album. The Beach Boys hadn't recorded a studio album since the year I was born, and hadn't made a good one since well before that. The odds were really stacked againt them, but what works for this album is two things: 1- the band had spent enough time apart (except Mike and Bruce who were still touring together shortly before)(but ESPECIALLY David Marks, who you probably forgot about! He hadn't been a member since the sixties and here he is back at last!) and 2- Brian wrote everything, with the help of Joe Thomas, barring a Mike Love track, and produced it all himself! Now, Brian's work in the interim had been of some quality (I particularly love Orange Crate Art (1995)), but his production and arrangements here are even better, somehow he stepped right back in the shoes and produced the Beach Boys like no one else ever could... I wouldn't say the producers were the cause of the problems on those other albums, but hey! They could be! Anyways, he outperforms even himself here, it's better than Love You for sure. I'd say it's around the level of Friends but in some ways it's so much more lush and softly drawing than even Pet Sounds. From second one, you get a taste of those pretty harmonies on "Think About the Days" where the band thinks about the days and says nary a word. "That's Why God Made the Radio" and "Beaches in Mind" are such a fun time, and it's so clear Wilson and his collaborators matured the songwriting to match where the group was at now. "Isn't It Time", oh my gawd! The album gives equal time to classic daydreaming about the past ("Daybreak Over the Ocean") and melancholy progressions and ruminations about sweet futility and longing like "Pacific Coast Highway" that wouldn't be out of place on Surf's Up. The album works perfectly as a retrospective about everything that makes the band great, and still stands up on it's own too. It's amazing how they make songs that wouldn't have worked and would've sounded so bland on earlier records like "The Private Life Of Bill And Sue", "Shelter" and "Spring Vacation" sound so amazingly fun and even bombastic. Their voices, especially Brian's, are overdubbed here more than on previous releases, to give them the same power as they once had, and while that might piss off some I find no problem with it. In many cases the added power improves what might have been a weaker melody. "Spring Vacation" shows Mike and Brian still have that spark between them, which is nice to think. Jon Bon Jovi co-wrote the ending song "Summer's Gone" which is slow and peaceful, with beautiful Pet Sounds-style instrumentation. It serves as well as any song could as an ending for what might be the last Beach Boys album they ever make. However, I have hope for another album, especially if it could be as great or even better than this one. The spark is back, at the very least. Sentimentality makes me want to call this perfect, it's only flaw is it's content to be slow and consistent, almost hypnotizingly so. But too many that won't even be of consequence. I love this damn album!
Phewwwww... jeez, these are mostly real reviews. This format's supposed to be succinct, but I like reading and I like writing so I wrote enough to occupy a reader's time if they're interested. If you're skipping around the albums please do so and you can use this as a guide. I hope that if you like The Beach Boys this drove you to seek out more of their music, if you never got into them you do now, and that if you hate them you can fuck right off mate. Cheers to you, Boys!